November 29, 2012 | Vol. 116 -- No. 32

Here is one solution to avoiding the ominous fiscal cliff – the end of the world

Write to the Point

December promises to be a busy, event-filled month. And that’s without football.

So what’s happening? Well, there are the various holidays, biggest of which (to us Westerners) is Christmas.

There’s also the end of the world. For those not following along this will happen when the Mayan calendar (go check the one hanging in your kitchen) runs out Dec. 21. I don’t know the time, I’m not Nostradamus.

And of course there’s the fiscal cliff. You know the one. The agreement struck during debt ceiling negotiations in August 2011 between President Obama and Congress that if deficit reduction measures weren’t agreed to before Dec. 31, 2012 then automatic, across the board program cuts would be triggered and the Bush-era tax cuts would expire.

Just about every expert or pundit you hear expects such measures to stifle our country’s modest economic recovery and plunge us once again into a recession.

There’ll be plenty of time to discuss Christmas, heck the first cries of a war on the holiday haven’t pealed out over the din of the shopping malls yet. As for the end of the world, well that would solve all our problems, wouldn’t it?

But the ole’ fiscal cliff. We know the arguments for avoiding going over the edge. Raise revenues by taxing the wealthy while closing code loopholes to augment spending cuts on one side – cutting domestic programs and reconfiguring entitlements like Social Security and Medicare (paid for every two weeks by us by the way – check you pay stub) with no tax increases anywhere on the other.

There may be weakening on that final prepositional phrase as several Republican Senators have backed away from their endorsement of conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist’s pledge to not raise taxes. But the posturing from both parties in support of their positions has begun nonetheless.

So what do we think? What does research say about Americans’ positions on how to avoid the cliff?

According to a Pew Research Center October study – and a follow up one conducted after the election between Obama and Mitt Romney voters (O and R) – while 51 percent of Americans now prefer a smaller government with fewer services, which requires a reduction in the deficit between revenues and expenses, we agreed on only two of 12 proposals on how to do it.

Fifty-eight percent (O=69, R=57) and 49 percent (O=50, R=53) of Americans agreed limiting tax deductions for large corporations and reducing Medicare for higher income seniors were acceptable ways to help reduce the deficit. The method most Americans agreed would help (64 percent) would be to raise taxes on income over $250,000, with 84 percent of Obama voters supporting this compared to 41 percent of Romney’s.

Romney’s number could be seen as a shift in position as a July Pew report indicated only 27 percent of Republicans felt raising taxes on incomes over $250,000 would help.

As for other proposals like gradually raising the Social Security retirement age, cuts in defense spending, raising personal Medicare contributions, reducing funding for college student loans, scientific research, education and help for low-income Americans were all unpopular with anywhere from 50-75 percent of those surveyed in October. Their popularity, or unpopularity, varied depending on who you cast your ballot for in the November survey. Go read the report.

So what does this all mean? As Americans we want smaller, less intrusive government but we’re all over the map on how to do it. Pew Research president Andrew Kohut summed it up in an analysis last June: “…if the deficit and related entitlement programs are to be addressed, it may well have to be in spite of public opinion, not in response to it.”

And of course both sides have now begun campaigns to sway public opinion to their solutions.

None of this should be a surprise. We’ve seen it played out before.

The problem isn’t government, it’s us. Until we are honest with ourselves about what government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” is really supposed to do – and we wrest it away from those who seek to use it for their own agenda – we’ll likely always be hovering near some sort of fiscal cliff.

Of course, the end of the world would solve all our problems.

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