Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The meagerness of this, or any, fiscal deal

The big news this in Washington this morning is, of course, that RG III and the Redskins beat the Cowboys at home in the last regular season game of the year, and as a result are the NFC East champs and in the playoffs.   That was the big news yesterday too, and probably will be until at least next week, when we will have another Redskins game to celebrate or mourn. 

In other, lesser news, the negotiations between McConnell and Biden actually achieved a mini-deal on the fiscal cliff issues, and a mini-deal is a major achievement these days.  The really big news is that it passed the Senate 89 to 8.  That’s eighty-nine.  I had to spell that out to understand the number.  89 votes out of 100 possible.  That’s way better than passing, it’s a high B!  This isn’t fake bipartisan, with one or two token votes from another party.  This is real bipartisan.  Of course no one really likes the compromise (that is the nature of compromise), and it has not yet passed the House, which will probably be an ordeal since the Tea Party Caucus has a lot of control over there.   Officially we are now over the cliff and in free fall.  But unlike Boehner’s Plan B, this bill will get a lot of Democratic votes in the House, so it doesn’t have to achieve a majority with Republican votes alone.  The odds seem modestly good that we as a nation will complete this tiny, tiny achievement.

It’s tiny in part because it’s only a partial event.  It does not solve the debt ceiling issue, and it only puts off the sequestration issue for two months, which is just about when the Treasury will run out of tricks to evade the debt ceiling limits.  It’s hard to believe that’s a coincidence.  So expect another round of bloody head-butting in February, and extending into March. 

It’s tiny in part because what they are arguing about is budget, and they haven’t even passed a budget for this fiscal year, FY2013, which is already ¼ over.  Passing a budget is not extraordinary business for a Congress: it’s their bread and butter business.   If they had any pride in their work, they would pass a budget for this year, including whatever debt authority is needed to implement that budget, and discuss the longer term issues in, well, the longer term discussion.

And finally it’s a tiny achievement because it’s only a budget, only for the near term really (all the reports tell us what these negotiations will do to our deficit over the next ten years, not over the next fifty), and we have other business that is truly huge. 

To start with, we have the long-term budget issues, the long term debt that is, we are ceaselessly told, the terrifying monster in the closet, the phantom in the dark, and nothing that is being discussed and is likely to pass comes close to dealing with that.  Because the long term issue is not the federal budget, or the federal debt: the long term issue is the rising cost of health care, period.   Yes, there will also be a bulge in the fraction of the population that is retired over the next few decades, but keeping all those retirees fed, clothed and housed is not going to break our economy---more about that another time.  The real issue even with the retired population is health care costs.  Unfortunately, we seem obsessed only with whether that cost shows up on the federal books, whether they add to the federal debt.   The real issue is that unless we deal with rising health care costs directly they will show up on someone’s books---if not on the federal government’s books, then on state or local or city books, or on the books of individual families who simply can’t afford them.   Maybe the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will help.  But “bending the cost curve” for general health care costs---not just federal health care expenditures---should be an absorbing interest for every member of Congress.

And we have climate change---and that the climate is changing is now undeniable, that carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere is both undeniably true and undeniably a primary cause of climate change, and that human activity has increased carbon in the atmosphere enough to matter is so close to being certain that no political philosophy that denies it can really hope to stand. 

We have the issue of the massive rise in income inequality and decline in economic mobility in the United States.   We now have greater income inequality than any other developed nation shown in the “Great Gatsby” chart in the link above, and less intergenerational income mobility that all but Italy and Great Britain.  We have less intergenerational income mobility than Singapore or Pakistan.  Surely this is worth some of Congress’s attention. 

And of course, there is the dismal state of America’s infrastructure, and how to maintain it, and how to improve it to enable economic growth over the next centuries.   And immigration and integration issues.  And how to deal with gun violence.  And..and…and…

I’m glad we have a mini-deal nearly in place.  But it would be better for the country if Congress could get past all the head butting on budget deals and debt ceiling deals, and get on with some of the truly big work that needs to be done.

But hey, at least the ‘Skins are in the playoffs.  

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