Emerging Issues: Transitions, the Cliff, and Two Modest Proposals

November 15, 2012

By Bill Barnes

In the donnybrook over its budgetary getting and spending, the Federal government lays waste its powers. That's what Moody's told us in summer 2011 when it downgraded US debt.

Now, Fitch and the International Monetary Fund warn of dire results if we go over the "fiscal cliff." And that's not even counting the melodramatic opportunities offered by a repeat of the 2011 debt ceiling fiasco.

The Federal legislative process now has more drama and fewer useful outcomes than a Hollywood action movie. It is, admittedly, great spectator sport, but how about we get back to when that process was "like sausage being made"? Boring and unpleasant but it produced results. Less boom-boom and more edibles.

A grand bargain in the lame duck transition is possible. But most observers are not betting on it. Some scenarios see a leap of faith that lets all the Bad Things happen, after which there's a miraculous bounce-back to cut the taxes that will have just been raised and fix the other stuff. Kierkegaard and Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley would love it.

So, what's to keep the 535 legislators plus the President from letting the fisc go off the cliff? The November elections have tilted the table in favor of the President's preferences, but, at this writing, the outcomes are quite uncertain. Elections, however, are just the beginning; other public officials and citizens should be crucial parts of the governance and politics on this topic in the transition and beyond.

A Catcher in the Rye? 

If our representative democracy works, then what the rest of us say and do will also matter. In a "republic", as Ben Franklin described our Federal Constitution, there are no spectators. Although we lack real political equality some people are more equal than others (stipulating here that the Supreme Court tells us that corporations are citizens and money is speech) everyone is to some extent a player.

State and local elected officials, public administrators, and other public, private and civic leaders have roles to play. They can some already do help shape public and private discussion so as to support a deal that creates a reasonable framework within which we can continue our disagreements over principles and policies and yet be able to act when necessary. Like now.

The President has convened highly visible meetings with corporate chiefs and with union and liberal leaders. At this writing, no similar session with state and local government officials has occurred. (The new NAPA/ASPA "Memos to National Leaders" includes a piece on the malfunctioning intergovernmental system. It's at http://www.memostoleaders.org/memos-national-leaders.)

There are no referees, no official guardians of the rules and the common weal, who will save the day. Readers of a certain age will recall the once controversial little novel, "The Catcher in the Rye." The title comes from the anti-hero Holden Caulfield's speech to Old Phoebe, his little sister, about "the only thing I'd really like to be." He pictures "thousands of little kids" playing in "a big field of rye." He is standing "on the edge of some crazy cliff", and "I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff."

Holden's fantasy is at best charming, at worst unrealistic and actually silly: he couldn't even help himself or remember to carry the fencing team's equipment with him when he exited the subway. (Long-time teachers report that by the late 1970's, students no longer identified with Holden and found him spoiled, whiney and useless. But that cultural change is a topic for a different essay.)

There will be no Catcher to save the commonwealth from its current perils. Will the 536 people with a vote fiddle while the nation yearns?

What Makes a Cliff?

The fiscal cliff is created by the upward thrust of public conversations that raise the tax-and-spend and roles-of-government topics to dizzying heights, from where everything looks like a "cliff." That thrust comes not only from partisanship, but from extremists and purists: not from disagreement about whether the top tax rate is 35 percent or 39 percent, but over whether the rate should rise at all, no matter its current level and no matter the need. The debt doom-mongers and a pundit who analogizes our current situation to the "sectional Great Compromises of pre-Civil War America" add to the overheated crisis atmosphere.

Life must be exhilarating and easy for people who see such issues as matters of Good and Evila choice, not an echoand politics as a struggle against All That is Bad. For most people, however, life and politics are predominantly gray areas and choices are not so stark. In a "Peanuts" comic strip Lucy once advised Charlie Brown that "you win some and you lose some." He pondered a bit and then sighed, "Gee, that would be nice." A glass half full would be very nice. People for whom the glass must be completely full would drive Charlie and most of us to distraction. Which is where we are now.

For glass-half-full folks who are accustomed to muddling through, the high melodrama of the cliff is a very bad way to get at the choices that will shape our future. What will America look like when the financial crisis and recession fade? Will people in the supermarket speak English? Will I have to carry my citizenship papers even when I walk to the supermarket? Will the rich continue to take most of the benefits of the nation's economic growth? Will I and my children have jobs that support a "middle class" way of life? In short, how will the new normal that is being constructed treat people like me?

Two Modest Proposals

Virtually no one will be pleased with the pain and bad outcomes that result from whatever deals get done in order to back us away from the cliff and should the sun shine upon us and the road rise to meet our feetto lower the crag from which all issues look like a cliff.

So, here's an appealing and unlikely way to push the 536 voters in Washington to come to a deal that allows our polity to move forward and also to disagree constructively afterward. The most noisy and obstinate extremists should move first: Tea Party leadership will initiate an old-fashioned letter-writing campaign to the 536 voters. The letters will say, "Now is the time for all good people to come to the aid of the country. So, please do what you can on behalf of the principles and values that I prefer and advocate, but get the deal done. I will support the deal." When the letters are publicly released, then everyone elseleft, right, and centerwill send similar letters to the 536.

Rather neatly to the point, but doubtless unrealistic. But then, fifty years ago I rather liked Holden Caulfield.

A serious and realistic tactic will be that elected and appointed public officials and other leaders encourage public conversation that isolates the extreme purists and makes it more feasible for the 536 players to do a decent deal.

Bill Barnes retired recently after a long career at NLC. His previous columns are collected on the NLC website Emerging Issues page.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.