The fault is not in our stars

Congress is back in Washington—a warning that reminds me of the comment many years ago by then-mayor Jeff Friedman of Austin, Texas, who, when asked for his thoughts about the fact that the state legislature was coming back to town soon, said “Lock up the kids and dogs.”

The legislative branch and the president are back in town, in theory, to deal with the prospect of more than $600 billion worth of budget cuts and tax increases scheduled to go into effect next week. They’re not making much progress, as you might imagine.

Remember, the “fiscal cliff” is a threat the legislative and executive branches imposed on themselves a year and a half ago. To resolve an impasse over extending the debt ceiling so the government could continue to borrow money and pay its bills, our “leaders” set this time bomb of higher taxes and cuts to federal programs to force themselves to come to agreements on taxes and spending and debt ceilings before the “unthinkable” happened. Well, now we’re on the doorstep of the unthinkable, and look what they’re doing. (By the way, the Treasury department says we’re going to hit the debt ceiling next week!)

Perhaps more annoying than our elected leaders’ inability to govern—for that is what it really comes down to, their inability to do what they were sent there to do—is the realization that the focus on the fiscal cliff isn’t what’s really important anyway. Not to say that higher taxes and program cuts don’t matter, but that the real cause of the government’s economic problems—spending more than we take in—still isn’t being addressed.

The fiscal cliff was a crisis of Congress’ own making, brought on by its inability to address many of the same problems last year. The bigger problem, which lawmakers aren’t addressing, is the lack of sustainable fiscal policy.

We are in this mess in part because for decades leaders from both parties have been reading from the same economic playbook. They haggle over the small change while trying to convince Americans that it will make a profound difference in the country’s finances.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy recently offered another on-target analysis that reminds us the real problem isn’t the fiscal cliff, it’s the historic lack of honesty on the part of the political parties.

The budget battle playing out in Washington is nothing more than a giant national temper tantrum. Since 2001, we have been on a spending jag that has ballooned well beyond the costs of inflation and population growth. We’ve funded wars and prescription drug plans, bailed out banks and automakers and stimulated the economy. These programs have spanned both parties’ control of the White House and Congress.

At the same time, we’ve cut taxes. We now have the lowest average tax rate in about 30 years, yet many still complain taxes are too high and protest any threats to cut or curtail entitlement programs.

For more than a decade, we have demanded more while expecting to pay less. No one wants to admit the party’s over.

But they do want to admit—they’re desperate to admit—that the other party is causing the problem. As for the immediate issue, after the House speaker and the president couldn’t come up with a deal last week John Boehner has insisted that the Senate must come up with a plan and then the House will consider it, while the Democratic leadership in the Senate “stands strong” insisting that the House approve a measure it’s already turned down…or else.  (Or else what?) And just while I’ve been writing this, CNN reported that President Obama is about to make a new offer, until it reported that he won’t.

As disheartening as it is to see our national leadership apparently incapable of acting in the nation’s best interests, the situation becomes damn near depressing when you recognize who is really to blame: it’s us. You; me; them; those guys over there, too—we are responsible for the evolution of a system in which ideological extremists representing the view of a minority of citizens are able to reach positions of national power, and we are responsible for not holding our leaders to account for not putting national interests first, and we are responsible for taking more and more from our government but not being willing to pay for what we take.

The solution to our government’s economic problems won’t come out of Congress this week or next; it won’t come from refusing to reduce spending on government programs (which, frankly, no one is doing), nor from refusing to raise taxes and threatening to hold one’s breath until one turns blue (which, candidly, more than one are doing). It will come, when it comes, with the realization by Americans that America can’t keep putting its everyday expenses on a credit card and only make the minimum payments indefinitely and still expect to remain fiscally healthy.  It doesn’t work like that, and we have the national debt and the federal budget deficit to prove it.

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It’s still the economy, stupid

Any system that tries to make candidates for public office come together in one place to talk about what they intend to do if elected is a positive for civic discourse. This week the two major party candidates for president of the United States met on a stage in Denver to talk about domestic issues and that meant, mostly, our country’s economy. They kinda sorta agreed that the fiscal situation is bad and something should be done, and yet the only thing we clearly remember out of the exchange is a lame crack about Big Bird? This is why we have a problem.

Our government’s fiscal affairs are a mess, but the only talk that gains any traction is about something that doesn’t really make a difference. Business columnist Loren Steffy calls it the Big Bird Syndrome, “when politicians imply they will fix the country’s massive fiscal problems by eliminating what amounts to chicken feed in federal spending.” Even though we all agree that a federal deficit exceeding $1 trillion must be reduced—for our own good—the people sucking around for our votes are too afraid of losing support to be serious and specific about how they propose to solve the problem. So they tentatively nibble around the edges:

Perhaps we need to cut these programs because they’re inefficient or we don’t believe government should fund them or we simply don’t like them. But as a deficit reducer, it’s like throwing a few grains of sand over the rim of Grand Canyon and saying you’re fighting erosion.

There are thousands of variables in this equation—spending programs, entitlements, tax rates, deductions, exemptions—and the Simpson-Bowles Commission did a great job envisioning how they might all be leveraged to make progress in reducing the deficit. That framework is still over there on the shelf waiting to be tried if anyone is interested…in Denver both candidates “praised the deficit-cutting framework” without “embrac[ing] the politically unpopular choices” it offered. (What, were the politically popular choices already taken?)

The U.S. government budget works the same as your personal budget and mine; it’s on an entirely different scale, but the basic principles are consistent. From time to time your family and mine spend more than we make, just like Washington, and it’s not always a bad thing: that’s how we pay for houses and cars and educations for our children, for disaster relief and war mobilization. But when we do it as a matter of course, as a way to pay for the “nice to haves” in our lives, and do it over and over for a long enough time, it pushes us into a pit that is damn hard to climb out of.

In that pit, we spend more and more of whatever money we make to repay the interest on the money we borrowed to buy the things we couldn’t afford but thought would be nice to have as well as the borrowed money itself. As the percentage of our income required to pay for the borrowing gets larger, the percentage available to pay for today’s needs gets smaller, and if we don’t reduce our spending to match the available income we have to borrow more to keep up. If there’s no increase in income, or no reduction in expenses, the process repeats and repeats and we spin further and further into debt. This is how banks and credit card companies and loan sharks get rich.

Paying back the loans is hard. Assuming you have no lottery windfall, it probably means doing without or with less for a while (but after you pay back the loan you have more money to spend on what you need or what you want or to save for future spending). That’s not to advocate for trying to pay off the entire national debt right away, but we can’t keep having such a high percentage of our income committed to paying interest—that keeps us from paying for other things that we decide are worth doing, or from reducing the tax burden (hey, how about that concept!). We can’t keep borrowing forever. Growth in the economy will contribute to more revenue without raising tax rates, but the economy isn’t growing fast enough today to make a dent.

This is still the most important issue facing the president and Congress, without exception. But I didn’t hear anyone on that stage in Denver suggest that you or me need to act like responsible adults and do the hard work that’s required: they have plans with lower tax rates (yeah!) and shrinking deficits (wowser!), with milk and cookies served all along the primrose path to solvency!!

They’re telling us what they think we want to hear. They believe we won’t vote for them if they tell us the truth: the economy is a sand castle near the water’s edge, and the tide is coming in…we all have to pitch in, sacrifice some, to protect and strengthen its foundation before the damn thing collapses of its own weight. And, they vaguely promise they have the road map to a solution, and drop only subtle hints about the condition of the road we’ll have to take to get there.

The next two “debates” between the candidates for president and vice president offer another opportunity for some straight talk on this subject. We, and the people who’ll actually be doing the asking in Danville and Hempstead, should be insisting that they give it to us.

Denial is not a river in Egypt, but it does water the root of America’s economic trouble

Please read this column.  Loren Steffy, the excellent business columnist at Houston’s Leading Information Source, makes a point that he and others have been making for a long time, but he does it today in such a clear and simple and straightforward manner that this truth must now be self-evident after any honest appraisal of the economic facts as they are recognized here in the reality-based community.

We know that increasing spending faster than revenue is unsustainable.  We know that fixing our problems will require both cutting spending significantly and increasing revenue.

We just don’t want to do it.

We haven’t even wanted to think about it for generations.  We elected representatives who promised programs that benefitted us; incumbents campaigned on a record of “bringing home the bacon” and we rewarded them with re-election; we treated the federal treasury as an ATM machine with no limits on withdrawals; and any candidates who spoke honestly of a need to raise revenue to meet government obligations were thrashed.  When the rising tide of the tech revolution lifted all boats and left the government with an actual surplus, we thought we were crapping platinum.  Our aversion to reality was so strong that rather than raise taxes to pay for two simultaneous wars we chose to trust that all would be well since we were on the side of the angels.

All those expenditures through all those years, without enough real money in the bank to pay the bill, added up: more than $14.5 trillion and counting.  As Steffy says, it doesn’t matter now whether President Obama lacks leadership or Congress lacks backbone or Standard & Poor’s bears some of the blame for the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent recession that led to the bailouts which contributed to the debt:

If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that S&P’s analysis rings painfully true.  We can blame whomever we want, but it’s a couple of decades past time to do something about it.

The leaders of the House and Senate are announcing their selections for the deficit reduction committee called for in the debt ceiling deal; that’s where the work has to start, now.  Let’s please pull our heads out of ___ _____ (you fill in the blanks) and find a solution to our problem.

Upon further review, we’ve determined that the deal isn’t really much of a deal

Well, everything turned out just swell after all the drama over the debt ceiling debate, didn’t it?  I mean, so long as you don’t mind that:

–the sorry spectacle of the political fight led one rating agency to drop America’s debt rating a notch below AAA anyway: it doesn’t doubt that the U.S. can pay its debts, but feels the political stalemate raised questions about the government’s willingness to pay its debts, and so lowered the rating as a warning to investors;

–the deal doesn’t actually reduce the nation’s debt, it just lowers the rate at which it is rising; and

–taking the nation’s financial health hostage in a political negotiation was shown to be an effective tactic, so we can expect to see it used again in the future.

Among the lessons learned:

–the deal assumes the elimination of the so-called Bush tax cuts at the end of 2012, meaning Republicans gave up the very thing they fought so hard for a year ago.

Plucking flaccid compromise from obstinacy should not be mistaken for victory, just as the smell emanating from Washington after this deal shouldn’t be mistaken for success.

82% of Americans are unhappy (disgusted?) with the performance of Congress on the debt issue, nearly half are unhappy with the president’s handling of the situation, and 40% view the Tea Party unfavorably.

More than four out of five people surveyed said that the recent debt-ceiling debate was more about gaining political advantage than about doing what is best for the country. Nearly three-quarters said that the debate had harmed the image of the United States in the world.

–the political system in Washington, D.C. is becoming more and more unproductive, and may not be able to help us with anything.

The president has tried reasonableness and he has failed. It has been astonishing to watch Obama’s sheer unwillingness to give up on his opponents after their refusal to work with him on the stimulus package, health care reform, or the extension of the Bush tax cuts last fall. A Congress dominated by mindless cannibals is now feasting on a supine president. But surely even he now realizes there’s no middle ground with antagonists whose only interest is in seeing him humiliated.

More real fun is going to come later in the year when a new federal fiscal commission tries to come up with a plan to solve the federal government’s money problems.  If it’s anything like the most recent such commissions, it will find that cutting the budget just can’t produce enough savings to right the ship and it will also look for equitable ways to increase revenue.  It could start by checking this week’s local paper: Ezra Klein outlines a plan for Democrats to boost revenue by negotiating like Republicans, and Charles Krauthammer offers a very rational outline for reforming and simplifying taxes so our representatives in Washington could have a fresh starting point on the coming negotiations on tax rates and entitlement reforms…and they are coming.

“You can’t blame the wreck on the train”

I only wish I had more time during the day to ponder all the developments in the “negotiation” in Washington, D.C. over raising the national debt ceiling, an issue that’s become wedded to an effort to cut government spending.  And that’s a fine issue…if only more Congresses had spent more time thinking about cutting, or at least holding the line.  Loren Steffy, one of the few bright spots at Houston’s Leading Information Source, observes that these are really two different issues and he makes a frightening case for the consequences we might all suffer if today’s Congress doesn’t pay the bills rung up in the past.

Since we last spoke on this matter, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate has finally had something to say.  After letting the speaker of the House and the House majority leader carry the fight against President Obama, Sen. Mitch McConnell offered a surprise solution to the impasse: give all the responsibility for raising the debt ceiling to the president, so the country won’t face an actual default but Republicans won’t have to take a record vote for higher taxes or a higher debt ceiling.  Maybe he thinks he’s being clever, but he’s getting killed by “conservatives” who think he’s given up the sacred fight.

See, it’s really hard to trust labels.  The Tea Party people, at least those who really drank the kool-aid, they say they’re conservative.  But there are plenty of people who’ve been known as strong conservatives for quite a while (in just the past week I’ve cited David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and David Gergen, for example) who think the GOP in Congress may be going too far this time.  Today I’ll add Steve Bell, who believes there will be a deal and no default, but that Republicans are spending so much energy protecting tax cuts for the richest Americans that the voters are going to smack ’em up-side their heads in November 2012 (I paraphrase).  Gallup’s latest poll finds, not surprisingly, that Americans would prefer to fix the problem with only cuts in spending, although they weren’t asked to identify which cuts they supported, but most of the country favors a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes.  Perhaps because they’re smart enough to realize that the problem is too big to fix with just one or the other.

Now Moody’s is putting American government bonds on review for a possible downgrade, and even the Chinese—the Communist Chinese!—are urging the U.S. government to be responsible and think about protecting investors all over the world.

So I was thinking about all of that, and I remembered the words to a Terri Sharp song I heard performed by Don McLean:

When the gates are all down and the signals are flashing,

The whistle is screaming in vain,

And you stay on the tracks, ignoring the facts,

Well you can’t blame the wreck on the train