Co-founder and co-editor, 'The American Prospect'
The Fiscal Cliff and the Political Chasm
QUESTION OF the Day: How can the Fiscal Cliff be giving aid and
comfort to the Bowles-Simpson crowd? The cliff would create a major
economic contraction; so would Bowles-Simpson.
The "fiscal cliff" is Beltway shorthand for a combo of automatic tax
increases and budget cuts set to go off Jan. 2. The timing of the two
is a coincidence.
One part is the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. A second part is the
due date of a budget trigger created last year when a super-committee
of Congress failed to reach agreement on a budget deal.
Under the automatic fallback created by the 2011 Budget Control Act,
$1.2 trillion of ten-year spending cuts ("sequesters") begin biting in
January, half from military spending and half from domestic programs.
Other fiscal bomblets go off as well, such as the end of the cut in
payroll taxes and of extended unemployment benefits, unless Congress
The Cliff is universally regarded as an impending disaster because it
would create a sharp fiscal contraction, at a time when the recovery
is weak to non-existent. The Congressional Budget Office calculates
that the Cliff would create a deficit reduction of 4.7 percent in FY
2013, causing the economy to go back into recession.
Meanwhile, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are back -- fiscal zombies
who just won't die. The latest Bowles-Simpson deal would... cut
spending and raise taxes, which in turn would, uh, create a sharp
fiscal contraction at a time when the recovery is weak to
In other words, an alternative fiscal cliff. Investment banker Bowles,
God help us, is even being proposed in some quarters as a successor to
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (he says he doesn't want the job.)
B&S have been working with a group of House and Senate deficit hawks
of both parties, cheered on by sycophants in the press. Their latest
caper, according to a breathless, cheer-leading piece by Steve
Pearlstein in The Washington Post, is a coalition of corporate CEOs
called Fix the Debt.
The CEOs plan to raise $50 to 100 million in the next two months to
promote a Bowles-Simpson style cliff -- tax increases and spending
You can just imagine the kind of tax increases these corporate
stalwarts are likely to propose. Hikes in capital gains taxes?
Corporate income taxes? A top bracket on the personal income tax? A
financial transaction tax? No way.
So, why is a fiscal cliff an economic disaster when it is the product
of legislative default and joy to behold when it is the work of
Bowles, Simpson, and their corporate cronies? It's the same misguided
fiscal contraction at a time when a fragile economy needs more public
Part of the reason is that the automatic budget cuts are seen as the
result of a failure of politicians to agree on a more measured set of
deficit cuts. Another reason is absolute horror at the prospect of
cuts in military spending, or the end of the Bush tax cuts.
For more than a decade, deficit hawks and their allies in the media
have been promoting a grand bargain whereby Republicans agree to tax
hikes and Democrats agree to cut social programs like Social Security
and Medicare. That, in turn, will put the deficit on a downward path
and presumably restore economic growth.
The trouble with this premise is that the current deficit is mainly
the result of the recession itself plus the Bush tax cuts and military
spending increases. It has nothing to do with Social Security; the
projected increases in Medicare spending are only the result of
failure to tackle deeper health care reform.
The idea that smaller deficits will somehow increase growth (Paul
Krugman's "confidence fairy") has the economics backwards. Deficits
will fall when growth is restored, not vice versa; and fiscal
contraction will reduce growth.
Bowles and Simpson have credibility in part because President Obama,
at a moment when he was driving under the influence of dubious potions
concocted by in-house deficit hawks like former budget director Peter
Orszag, created the commission that bore their name. Obama hoped that
the commission would give him fiscal credibility and get him through
the 2010 mid-term election. We saw how well that worked. In the
meantime, Obama facing his own re-election, has moved off
deficit-hawkery and sensibly proposed new job creation measures of
$450 billion. But Bowles, Simpson and company have taken an afterlife
of their own.
In spite of this, fiscal events are now breaking Obama's way -- if he
has the courage to lead. For starters, the fact that all of the Bush
tax cuts expire Jan. 1 gives Obama a huge tactical advantage.
Republicans are holding out for extending all of the tax cuts. But if
they refuse to pass Obama's proposal of extending the cuts for the
bottom 98 percent, the calendar works in Obama's favor. As Sen. Patty
Murray proposed, Democrats can let all of the tax cuts expire on
schedule, then challenge Republicans to join them in supporting a
break for all but the wealthiest 2 percent.
The $600 billion in defense cuts scheduled if the sequester goes off
also gives progressives a huge tactical advantage -- again, if Obama
is prepared to play hardball. Democratic military hawks will scream,
but Obama can challenge Republicans to support a reasonable budget. If
not, let the military cuts start happening.
What's required is a resolute presidential speech making clear that
Social Security and Medicare are not going to be on the chopping
block; and that Obama is not going to trade one fiscal cliff for
another by embracing Bowles-Simpson 3.0. The president has made a good
start by promising to limit tax breaks to the bottom 98 percent. Now
he needs to explain why belt tightening in a severe slump is a
terrible idea -- whether the work of an automatic formula or of the
corporate elite as organized by Bowles and Simpson.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior
fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.