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EDITORIAL

Pitiful restraint as fiscal cliff nears

Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 9:00 am

"Give me mine first" has become "Take soembody else's first."

It’s time for one of those good-news, bad-news clichés: The bad news is that we’re headed for a “fiscal cliff” we may not be able to avoid going over. The good news, as The Associated Press reports it, is that the crisis is forcing the nation’s lobbyists, advocates and trade groups to moderate their usual panhandling style. “Instead of digging for more tax dollars, they’re trying to protect what they’ve got.”

The cliff, of course, is the result of a massive combination of automatic tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts due to kick in January because members of Congress wanted a self-imposed deadline for dealing with the $1 trillion deficits being added each year to the debt that is now more than $16 trillion. They sort of jumped out of the crushing-debt frying pan into the “Hey, let’s send the economy into another tailspin” fire.

Alas, the lobbyists’ newfound restraint is not likely to thwart the looming emergency. It’s merely the most visible face of the “Don’t raise my taxes and don’t cut the programs I like” mentality prevalent in the nation at large. “Take somebody else’s first” is not really the opposite of “Give me mine first.” It merely reduces the race to the cliff to a quick-time march.

And if the citizens of the United States don’t really have their hearts in it when they mouth platitudes about fiscal restraint, how can we expect their leaders to? The so-called “cheerleaders for austerity,” it is strongly suspected, don’t really mean it.

President Obama created a deficit commission that in 2010 produced a plan proposing a combination of tax increases to reduce government borrowing by a mere $4 trillion over a decade – not reducing the existing debt, mind you, but slightly cutting back the rate at which it will increase. He has largely ignored that plan.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are involved in a massive let’s-pretend game of hair-splitting in which they seek to get more money from the nation’s richest taxpayers without “technically” raising the top rate of 35 percent. Never mind that the net result will result in the same amount of extra money being taken from the same set of taxpayers and moved from the private economy into public coffers, further weakening the economy and adding even more to the impulse to spend.

And even if Congress does find a short-term solution that gives us a little breathing room – which is what most observers expect to happen – there is absolutely no appetite among the people or their leaders to address the long-term drivers of the debt: the unsustainable entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. We just went through an election cycle in which every candidate promised not to touch them, for goodness’ sake.