Do you need a good laugh?
Writing for World magazine's website last Friday, my friend J.C. Derrick told a joke.
It was so funny, I laughed out loud. Seriously!
Wanna hear it? OK: here it is. This is what he wrote in an article about pending government budget cutbacks due to take effect in Washington on January 1, 2013, and Congress' inaction to avoid the cutbacks:
"To complicate matters, lawmakers are only scheduled to work eight days in September and five days in October as election season reaches its peak."
See that four-letter word called "work?" In relation to Congress? My friends, that's ROFLOL funny, isn't it? I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many people outside of the beltway who view what goes on in our Capitol as "work."
How Much Work is it to Kick a Can Down a Road?
Like J.C. wrote in his piece, our "112th Congress has repeatedly kicked the can of responsibility down the road in the last 20 months," meaning that all of the austerity threats meant to force our elected leaders into concrete, bipartisan action and accountability have done nothing of the sort. As part of their ridiculous budget-ceiling scuffle last year, lawmakers built into their last-minute truce a promise to make genuine, substantive spending reductions by the end of this year, or face $110 billion in even more radical automatic funding cuts that could inflict relatively indiscriminate fiscal carnage.
Not that I'm against budget cuts. But this deadline, by virtue of the wide swath it will cut, is being called a "fiscal cliff." We're steering right towards it, full steam ahead, pedal to the metal, with only a handful of days left to "work" on better solutions to keep from leaping into the abyss.
Frankly, some right-wingers say, America will be just fine going over this fiscal cliff. These cuts need to be made and obviously, nobody in office today has the guts to make them. America is a lot more resilient a country than liberals give it credit for, and whatever initial pain we might feel from these cuts, we'll heal up and be stronger in the future than we are today, drowning as we are in all of this waste.
Which sounds logical, if not entirely reassuring. Sure, we still have the world's most robust economy, all things considered. Free markets should be able to take a hit and keep on ticking. Besides, it's not like the solutions left-wingers will propose at the 11th hour will be anything more than window-dressing. We need to become a lean, mean, freedom machine. And if we need to chop off all of these entitlements cold-turkey to do it, then giddy-up! I'm ready!
Quitting smoking cold-turkey is one thing. Triggering a $110 billion, poorly-planned blood-letting of government programs is another. For one thing, might such a thing stoke some dangerous uncertainty in financial markets? Will investors be content to let the chips fall where they may, or could they panic? Sure, the general public may embrace the broad idea of cutting government waste, but when it slices into their wallets, do we know we can deal with any social volatility that could result? Instability is always a good opportunity for rogue powers to wreak terroristic turmoil. $110 billion won't force our government to collapse, but it may feel like it will, and that's all our media needs to stoke distrust, resentment, and fear.
After all, it's not just government budgets that will take the hit. Private companies who sell to the government, along with government contractors, may be forced to lay off thousands of people - in addition to the thousands of government employees who may be suddenly unemployed. Does dumping all of these people into the job market within the same time period make good economic sense? How does it lower our already-high unemployment rate? Sure, we have a bloated bureaucracy, and we need to reduce government employment (which soared under George W. Bush, BTW). But flooding the country with unemployed workers could have a significant ripple effect, jeopardizing even more credit card debts, mortgages, car loans, and student loans than are at risk now. You think the food stamp program has been over-run? Just wait until all of these people lose their jobs at the same time.
Bridging the Cliff
The problems we have in the United States were not created overnight, and they will not be resolved overnight. Usually, those are words politicians live by, because they tend to elicit the same laziness that contributes to these problems. Plodding along, haphazardly stitching piecemeal solutions together more for their political value than their long-term viability has got to stop. We need bold action. But the trick will be getting the most value from our actions. Instead of driving towards a fiscal cliff, aren't Americans dealing with a bureaucratic cancer that is attaching itself to vital organs and draining our resources? Surgery is indeed required, but won't a strategic scalpel, maybe with some local anesthesia, be more effective than scorched-earth cluster-bombing?
This isn't a time for trite right-wing catch phrases or reckless left-wing denials. Indeed, as my friend J.C. points out in World magazine, it's not just the budget that's running out of time. The Bush-era tax cuts, a bloated farm bill, and reform of the U.S. Post Office all present formidable political, social, and economic challenges. Maybe these don't all face an end-of-the-year deadline, but Congress' lack of urgency on them only weakens their overall credibility, and dims the prospect for rational action on our country's budget.
For example, I think Bush's tax cuts represent the most wiggle room, since conservatives who keep protecting high-income-earners only weaken their middle-American street cred. Nobody can prove that rich people paying a fraction more in income taxes will impact the job market. Maybe America's rich could even profit from the legislative breakthroughs that could result from this compromise on the Republicans' part.
Farming is a bit more complicated an issue, since it's all of the entitlements taxpayers subsidize for our agriculture industry that help keep food prices artificially low. Still, it's never made sense to me that taxpayers pay farmers to not grow stuff. Such arcane policies that haven't kept up with the times, like our farm legislation - and even our ossified postal system - are rife with waste and, therefore, prime candidates for diligent and decisive bipartisan reform. Reform that will require some work.
However, this being an election year, I don't hold out any hope that the good
of our country will hold any sway over our legislators on these issues. Compromise is a dirty word in partisan politics, even though it's the only way progress takes place in a republic. I suspect one of the reasons compromise is so shunned stems from the reality that it's harder than blunt grandstanding. Appealing to your support base isn't nearly as much work as trying to convince somebody across the aisle that equal concessions can yield common benefits. Politicians like the imagery of rolling up their sleeves, but more and more, the hard work of governance is fading behind divisive platitudes.
At the end of the day, it may indeed be that the $110 billion in pending spending cuts will be better than whatever other budget cuts our politicians can - or can't - reach. But Congress has not given us any reason to assume such will be the case.
In the meantime, they have so much work to do on the campaign trail, trying to convince us voters that they deserve another term in office, they haven't allocated themselves the time to actually do the work for which they were elected in the first place.
It's a good thing we can laugh about this.