Saturday, January 05, 2013

Oh, Those Crazy Kids


Seeing as how I just came back from my best vacation in years, it would seem odd to let loose another Jeremiad.  Truly, blogs are great forums for venting about all things political (or, should I say, all things human?), but it seems petty to vent after you have spent eight days seeing old friends, really cool museum exhibits, amazing topography, and your college team win the Rose Bowl for the first time since you matriculated there 3 ½ decades ago.  (That’s right: three of the 93,000+ visitors to this year’s Rose Bowl were named Spiro.)   So yes, I’m in too good a mood to lament in earnest about the sorry state of the Union.   

Consider what I’m about to say in the proper spirit of humor, then.  I feel like an adult who, having just watched some silly teenagers make fools of themselves, is forced to shake his head and say “Oh, those crazy kids.”   In this case, the crazy kids are President Obama, Vice President Biden and the boys and girls from Congress.

Let’s start with Biden.  This New Year’s Day, everyone’s favorite Joe could be found on newspapers throughout the nation smiling from ear to ear.   He was the one the President tasked to go to Capitol Hill and deliver a deal to save us from the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  It doesn’t matter that virtually no Democrat I know was worried about that cliff and that most would just as soon watch us go back to the tax levels of the Clinton years.  For some reason, this Administration wanted to treat that prospect like the precipice to end all precipices.  And if that meant that the Administration would have to make massive concessions to the principles of progressive taxation in order to avert this “disaster,” so be it.  

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the most indelible impression left from the cliff negotiations was that smile on Joe’s face.   It’s as if he was as happy about the results of the fiscal cliff negotiations as I am about the results of the Rose Bowl game.  In my case, though, I have the memories of witnessing the victory of my beloved Stanford Cardinal.  What “victory” did Joe witness?   I have heard plenty of Democratic talking heads try to explain it to me, but I still can’t figure that one out.

Surely, President Obama knows why this is such a great victory, because he’s the one who is sending out minions to praise the deal.  One of their key talking points is that the deal preserves the present tax levels for fully 98 percent of the American public, which was the same percentage that the President spoke about during the campaign.   Technically, that statement is accurate; the fiscal cliff deal does preserve the tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans.  But what the Administration doesn’t like to acknowledge is that the deal also preserves the Bush tax cuts for more than half of the remaining two percent.   We can’t even say that all the “1 percenters” are going to feel the sting of higher taxes, for a number of those wealthy people also fall under the magic $450,000-per-year line.   So, under the deal that has made “smiling Joe” so happy, virtually all of us can rest assured that our own tax level will remain as it was under President George W. Bush.   And we can also relish the idea that the new tax levels have been made “permanent” – meaning that it will be much more difficult for any progressive political party to show up and try to change that.
All hail the deal!   All hail the end of progressive taxation in America.

In normal circumstances, that prospect wouldn’t thrill me.  But given how much fun I had last week, I can’t begrudge Biden’s right to smile.   I feel like smiling whenever I think about Stanford’s stout second-half defense and how it left Wisconsin scoreless.  And that game makes me smile even though all I did was sit on my duff and yell a bit, whereas Joe actually played a major part in the Administration’s purported “victory.”   Maybe he was misguided, maybe not, but clearly, his boss supported his efforts.  He did the job asked of him: he averted the cliff.   He protected the Bush tax cuts for 99+ percent of America, and that result somehow made his President happy.  So I’m as happy for Joe as I am for Stanford’s linebackers.

But what puzzles me more than Joe’s reaction is that of the Congress.   The last time I checked, we were supposed to have literally hundreds of Democrats in Congress – including well over 50 Senators.  And none of them works directly for the President. So why did virtually all of them endorse this deal?  Why did the lion’s share of the deal’s nay-sayers come from the Republican Party?   Why, for example, did Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders, a so-called “socialist,” endorse a deal that is so tepid on taxing the rich?   How do these Democrats think we’re going to pay for our bloated health care system, our generous social security payments, our protect-the-world military, or all the other services we expect from our government?   Correct me if I’m wrong, but if our spending needs are rapidly growing, due both to an aging population and a national debt that has reached Brobdingnagian proportions, won’t we need to INCREASE our taxes?  And won’t we need to increase tax rates for more than a fraction of one percent of our population?    And if even our “progressive” statesmen won’t fight for these principles, exactly who will?   

Oh, those crazy kids.
Of course, the conventional wisdom is that things are only going to get crazier.  It is generally accepted that by entering into this deal on taxes, Obama has lost his leverage with the Republicans and will really be forced to make major concessions when it comes time to increase the debt ceiling.  At that point, he will have no ability to simply do nothing and let the tax rates fall to their pre-Bush levels.  If he does nothing, the Republicans will say “no deal,” the U.S. Government will stop paying its bills, the economy will tank, and who will get blamed?  That’s right – the President.   Clearly, he’s not going to let that happen, and the Republicans must be licking their chops at the prospect that there will be massive Democratic concessions to follow.  In fact, thanks to the fiscal cliff negotiations, the Democrats won’t be able to offer lower taxes for those who make $250,000-$450,000 per year, because they’ve already conceded on that point.  So much for smiling Joe’s victory.

The good news in all this is that when it comes to the next round of negotiations, we are bound to see some developments that are truly beneficial to the country.  There are loopholes in the tax system that everyone should agree must be closed, and government spending that everyone should agree must be cut.  Democrats and Republicans might engage in some posturing to suggest that they support either ridiculous loopholes or excessive spending, but in truth, there is legitimate room here for common ground.  The question is, will there be enough common ground to enable these wild and crazy kids to reach an agreement that truly puts our nation’s fiscal house in order, and does so equitably?  On that point, I have my doubts.  And when it comes to speculating about who will be the ones to make the most significant concessions, my bet is on the President, his guy Joe, and their Democratic followers in Congress.

Look at it this way – during recent decades, whenever we’ve had a Republican in the White House, he has figured out a way to assert his authority and enact solidly conservative legislation.  But when we’ve had a Democrat in the White House, he has invariably agreed to legislation that reflects massive compromises with the conservative party.  The result is that we’ve been oscillating between conservative rule and “moderate” rule, and have not been able to see what we used to see in America – a truly progressive administration.

As a progressive myself, there are weeks when that would make me sad or perhaps even mad.   But not this week.  Stanford finally won the Rose Bowl, and I was there to see it.  As for the boys and girls on Capitol Hill and Pennsylvania Avenue, I’ll just put them in the same category that I put Jerry, Elaine, George and Cosmo Kramer.  Let them talk about themselves like they’re great heroes who prevent us all from jumping off “cliffs.”   I’ll just look at them as gifted comedians.   And as long as they don’t take away my football games, I won’t fear their comedy.  At least not this week.

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