Thursday, January 3, 2013

'Merica: A Cliffmas Story

America, 2012. Artist's recreation.

Everybody in my family is on that local government dole, so it should come as no surprise that KJ's Christmas tree stays fitted to the fullest. And sometimes when you're ballin' out like me and my seed, opening presents on Christmas morning gets straight exhausting. Like you ever just get to that point where it hurts to even think about opening another gift, like you don't even want to hear about it because you've already gotten after so damn many and your fingers hurt and there's already trash piled high to the ceiling. Man... every year, I tell ya. I mean, how many gifts - how much love?! - can one man be expected to receive and remain genuinely appreciative throughout the process?! Anyway, t'was no different this year. Like no sooner was I about to get down with my newly gifted gold, frankincense, and myrrh was one final gift found way back behind the family's phony fir.

I'd be lying if I said that was all that out of the ordinary. Saving the best gift for last is a pretty classic trick in white people's Christmas playbook, and occasionally you'll come up on a new chain or Macbook Pro or Mercedes C-class or something neat like that. My ma' thinks she invented this tactic or whatever, so we're all pretty accustomed by now. But ay yo check it out, this year the final gift was addressed to all of us! Tag was all like "To: KJ + hoodrats. From: Uncle Samuel." Can you believe that ya'll?? The government! Naturally, I was intrigued and ripped that mess open like I was a starving, presentless child in Africa. And would you believe it, the United States legislative branch (in conjunction with our chief executive) got us increased taxes and a sequester of federal defense and discretionary spending as a result of their inability to avert the so-called fiscal cliff!

Merry Christmas, American middle class!! You got the government you've always wanted!! Right?! Super pumped, I know.

I was sippin' on some yuletide sizzurp the other night, solving the world's problems and all that with one of my realest homies, when he remarked at the concerning lack of exasperation from the public regarding what were potentially calamitous repercussions coming forth in the event an agreement had not reached (repercussions that, for once, would have reached all the way down to Joe Six-pack and, more importantly, his wallet). I mean, everyone knows the full extent to which the shit would have hit the fan, right? Like, they had been paying attention to this absurdist saga over the two-and-one-half years that it had been playing out, right? Haha... riiiiiiiiiiiight.

Google search historical trend for "fiscal cliff". Last 90 days. United States.

I love graphs. Mostly because I (unlike a majority of my compatriots) can read, understand and interpret them. I also love them because every so often one as beautiful and comprehensible as that above is generated. A perfect graph is one that even idiots can understand without a whole lot of help. This is that kind of graph, and I love the shit out of it. You see that asymptotical incline right in the middle? That, strangers in the void, corresponds to 11/7/12, which I'm sure you'll all recall was the day after we unanimously accepted BHO as our lord and savior, again. If ever there was a doubt as to the number of political issues of which the average American can remain simultaneously knowledgeable, let that doubt be laid to rest. The answer is one. This shortcoming is, of course, exacerbated by your news-for-profit organization of choice; for, nary a mention of the dreaded fiscal cliff do I recall during election season. Nay, there was much talk about Obama's forty-seven percent and Romney's wife's horses. Lord knows there was talk about the future of taxation in America, but never in conjunction with concurring current events. Never were candidates evaluated with respect to the impending and immediate need for political skill and acumen, because the attention span of the average voter is oh my god i.. oh my god does Duchess of Cambridge has morning sickness?!

Point is, God(?) forbid we task the people with the arduous duty of considering an election and its aftermath in any substantive fashion. It comes with consequences, though. When our attention soon swiveled back to the dirty ol' debt dilemma, wiped of the dust it collected while it was on the backburner in the D-block and made shiny amidst a new coat of political high-horsing, hardly a month of working time remained to hash out a deal of almost unimaginable scope by today's standards. Yeah, like that was going to happen. Even the more adroit Congressional deal-brokers basically just spent that time blaming any and everyone else for the failure they understood as inevitable. The richest (ha) part of everything is that after all of the talk about if, and when, and on whom taxes should increase, it was settled the way all problems are settled in Washington now: by doing nothing. Everyone got the shaft. You really had to see it coming.

If you're just tuning in, though, there's a good chance that you didn't. I mean, Congress has always been pretty slow to step up when it comes to just about anything that doesn't involve dropping bombs on the Middle East, but this seemed particularly dire. Some pretty bright dudes on both the right and the left were poppin' off about the perils of passivity. The CBO certainly called their shot months ago. Another recession when the last one never really felt like it ended? That should have undoubtedly spark some sort of, you know... sense of purpose, or something. Sure it should have... if you're under the misconception that this is another isolated instance of Congressional ineptitude.

And that's where spoon feeding the general public these battles piecemeal is most problematic. Lemme let you know now: this was not another example of governmental dysfunction; it was the fucking same example. Seriously. These douchebags have been working on the same exact problem for the last two years, wailing away about the debt and deficit before punting the political football sixty yards downfield and calling it progress.

Excerpts from A People's History of Legislative Blue-Balling are as follows:

Remember January 2010? Yeah, those were the days, man. I was a single dude getting drunk like every afternoon. I was like three months from being done with college and, thus, four months from shitting my pants and realizing I had no idea what the fuck I was going to do with the middle-third of my life. Anyway, it was way back then that the United States Senate, an estimable body if ever there were, brought to the floor a vote that would, if passed, create a special commission charged with producing a plan for reducing the United States' ballooning national debt. Ah ha! but there was a caveat: the bill brought forth would require a simple up-or-down vote on passage and implementation of whatever plan emerged from said commission. Simply put, Republican members of congress would have to go on the record as having voted for a plan that would actually take measurable steps toward solving a problem they had ignored while they were the party in power, but were suddenly (and loudly) focused on with hawk-like ferocity now that a black man was living in the big house. Obviously it didn't pass. Worse, it failed 53-47 because six Republican senators who cosponsored the goddamn thing saw fit to vote against it. All was well; everyone kept bitching.

So like a month later my main man, B-rack, put on the daddy pants, swooped down from the executive branch and dropped that hot fire in the form of Executive Order 13531. BAM, bitches! Commission formed... though of course there would be no mandatory vote on their "recommendations." This was, of course, the trumpeted/lamented/disowned/adopted/esteemed Bowles-Simpson Commission (also known as Simpson-Bowles if you're a tight-ass towin' party lines or the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform if you're just a tight ass). Thing was stacked with all kinds of people you've probably never heard of: Bowles & Simpson (obvs.), Ryan, Coburn, Baucus, Durbin, Gregg. They worked tirelessly from March through November putting together a plan toward some sort of sustainability. And, because there were certainly no repercussions for failing to do so, the 3 women and 14 men of the committee (10 Democrats and 8 Republicans) failed to reach the supermajority of 14 votes to approve their final report. They released their plan [a $4 trillion (that's "Trillion" with a "T") deal that would essentially wipe out the United States' public debt by 2035] to widespread acclaim and prai... Hahah who am I kidding they were summarily shat on by everyone. For shits, a couple dudes brought what were essentially the "recommendations" of the Bowles-Simpson Committee to the floor of the United States House of Representatives for a vote. In what may prove to be the last time Republicans and Democrats ever agree on anything in Washington, the measure was defeated 382-38. Ahh, so close! Yet, all was well; everyone kept bitching.

For after the turkey, and ham, and Christmas yams, the new year brought forth another scrumptious blessing: a newly elected Republican House majority with an appetite for wholesale destruction of United States creditor confidence! That's right, sons and daughters, we've reached the damned debt ceiling disaster of 2011! Man, if that wasn't the finest display of brinkmanship the world had ever seen, huh? Oh, you don't really remember what that was about, either? I know, I know.. so many controversies ago. It's cool.. I'll help you along... You see, the United States has for the past 30 years or so spent much, much more than it has taken in annually. To supplement and fund all the pretty things we like to enjoy but not pay for, we borrow money. This is called debt, and we can by law only accrue as much as the legislative branch allows. Since not spending money is hard and we routinely reach this limit, called a "debt ceiling", we have traditionally just raised the roof on that bitch whenever we get there. We always have regardless of who was spending the money, because the alternative (defaulting on sovereign debt) has long been considered, to put it mildly, fucking reckless as fuck. During the summer of 2011, though, said ceiling was basically taken hostage by a bunch of non-economist non-historians. Spending, once again, needed to be fake addressed. Dudes were like, "You think I give a fuck about the ceiling. Half the country can't even name me, let alone reelect me!" And the people that are responsible for electing those idiots were calling in to Rush and being like, "Yeah, I don't see what the big deal is. I default on my credit obligations all the time. Spending is the problem!" It got heated, and I'll admit I was about 80% sure we were going to put at least a crack in that piece. But alas, Congress was able to put a bill on the President's desk that raised the debt ceiling in exchange for reductions not in spending, but on planned increases in spending over the next decade, effectively doing nothing. No worries though, guys, they also established yet another committee that would convene later and resolve this once and for all! Punt. All was well; everyone kept bitching... Oh yeah, and Standard & Poor's reduced the US credit rating for the first time in history, anyway.

The United States Congress Joint Select Committe on Deficit Reduction, more popularly and naively known as The Supercommittee, is probably my favorite part of this comedy. The members, three senators and three members of the house from each party, were handpicked the next week by the party leadership. In an ideal world that does not exist anywhere, the whole supercommittee thing isn't a terrible idea. Part of why nothing truly substantive ever gets done on the federal level is because there are just too many (or just enough) morons to prevent it from happening. Too many people, too many competing interests, too much politics. If twelve of the more astute centrists from both sides of both houses were able to hammer out a deal behind closed doors that would then be, as mandated by the Budget Control Act, brought to a vote with no chance to filibuster... hell that could possibly work. Too bad this is the United States of America. What we got instead was a collection of old dogs and young ideologues, each side built not to make concessions, but rather to ensure their sacred cows were kept from slaughter. I laughed when I saw the lineup. Becerra? Hensarling? Kerry & Kyl? Good luck getting those guys to agree upon their favorite District brothel, let alone on upon the cuts required. They needed $1.5 trillion. They got 4th and 10. Staring down the field, time dwindling, the crowd getting loud, our most honorable representatives dug deep, found their inner politician, remembered that failure really was an option and punted. It was, as predicted, a most glaring and beautifully futile waste of time.

But alas, this time there was a most shocking twist! Somewhere along the way, someone dreamed an almost inconceivable dream that inaction should have .. gasp.. consequences. Somehow, this was agreed to by real-life legislators and written into the same law that raised the debt ceiling and created the joint committee. In the event of the working group's failure to make necessary cuts, they would be instituted automatically.  The technical term is, you guessed it, sequestration of spending. This kind of automatic trigger was believed to be a pill poisonous enough to deter even a congress this recalcitrant. As was as clearly evident a year ago as it is now, these dudes don't give a damn.

And if you caught Obama on Meet the Press last Sunday morning, you got the distinct impression that he didn't really either. That cliff was a'comin, and we were 'bout to go right off that bitch. And we did. Like Thelma and Louise, but with less hesitation and in a rocket. Like Evel Knievel, but without a pussy-ass parachute. It happened, guys. You can blame whoever you want: Republicans for turning down a comprehensive bill that includes cuts to entitlements because of an inability to accept taxes will be going up on the rich, regardless; Democrats for demanding taxes return to Clintonian levels and not that spending do the same; the media, the money and the primary system for forcing politicians to stray from concessions for fear of losing to fringe candidatse less compromising. It makes no difference.

We went over. And I couldn't be happier.

First of all, this shit is important. As much as I would never have admitted it in 2008 when I was going HAM for Obama/Biden (or, more accurately, against Anyone/Palin), the fact of the matter is that we spend entirely too much money. Throughout all the yelling, screaming and fear-mongering, that is the undeniable truth. It's not that we spend too much for how much we take in, it's that we spend too much to ever take in enough, regardless of height of the rates or the breadth of the base. It's not a secret, and neither is the fact that immense defense apparatus and ever-expanding social safety net are the culprits which must be cut. Yet, as has been so painfully put on display above, cuts are a funny thing. They're so easy to call for, but so difficult to vote for. They're so easy to demand when shit-talking on the back porch, but so difficult to accept on the business end of a paystub. Poor, white, southern conservatives, for example, don't necessarily have a problem with welfare per se. They have a problem with Sweet Dee spending hers on cold pop. Older, middle-class retirees aren't opposed to any adjustments in Medicare, just the ones that take place before they die.

Ask anyone receiving some form of payment from the government where the cuts should come, and they'll tell you to eliminate the waste in the budget first. "Waste" pretty directly translates to discretionary spending, of which there are two types: defense and non-defense. Defense spending is, obviously, money allocated to the Department of Defense: money for wars, money for future wars, money for future wars with aliens... that kind of thing. This portion of the budget is bloated beyond reason, especially in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush Doctrine. Yet, cuts to defense are always the most bitterly contested, not chiefly because of an overarching neo-conservative philosophy, but because of something much simpler: jobs. Whether it be soldiers, auxiliary personnel, or those hired out through contractors and sub-contractors (all at a prevailing wage), money spent by the Department of Defense is money spent funding jobs, and good jobs at that. That's why the cuts dictated by the sequester (which are to be equally split between the two kinds of discretionary spending), could very realistically result in another recession. Defense spending is like an ongoing, permanent baby-stimulus. How's that for laissez faire?

By comparison, non-defense discretionary spending is almost always what gets cut when Congress actually cuts. This is mostly because it is hands-down the route of least resistance. It consists of a diverse assortment of programs, none of which have a lobby as strong or organized as the AARP or Northrop, et al. Truth be told, though, there's a lot of really important shit that comprises this slice of our fiscal pie: money for education, research and development (for science, health and energy), environmental protection... you know, investments of importance for future generations.

Yet if there's anything that's invariably true about the generation immediately preceding mine (see: Baby Boomers), it's that they give zero shits about those that come after. They pretty single-handedly put Reagan in the White House (which is where this whole deficit spending sugar high got started). They've demanded more in services and conceded less in payments at every opportunity over the last three decades. And, perhaps most personally frustrating, they've lamented the loudest about the state of what's being left for future generations while being so wildly and unironically unaware that they are most largely responsible for the dwindling resources and mounting burden. The fact that the average person contributes far less in Social Security and Medicare than they ultimately take in has been known for a very long time, for instance, and their remedy was to expand entitlements (I'm looking at you Part D).

As was so adeptly stated on Meet the Press by David Brooks of The New York Times (who is always unfairly branded a RINO because he dares to exhibit common sense and realism):

"The big lie in this whole thing is that we've [supposedly] got this sensible country with a dysfunctional Washington. The reality is we have a country of people who want to bankrupt their children to spend money on themselves, and they will punish any politician that prevents them from doing that."

Look at David Brooks spitting talk so real. You can't fuck with that.

You see, that's why I was hoping so hard for more of the same dogged intransigence and empty-suitedness that's come to define modern American politics. If staunch adherence to inaction and legislative inertia are here to stay, if they've become the new normal, we should at the very least be keen to recognize and cherish those moments when it yields positive results. For while the sequester wouldn't have instituted the wisest, most responsible or most effective cuts possible, it would have at least instituted cuts. Real, sizable cuts. And as painful as it is to watch these people shout at each other across the bleachers, it's far more agonizing to see them get out on the field, pick up the ball and fucking punt. Because that's what happened, again: the extension of "emergency" unemployment benefits, the complete avoidance of Medicare and Social Security, the indefinite continuation of unaffordable tax cuts for the 99% of Americans that demand the most of the upper 1% and the least of themselves (sorry, but an additional couple thousand dollars per year ain't the end of the world; it's cost of citizenship in a country where everyone is afforded tremendous freedoms and access to upward mobility). Oh, and don't forget the continued disregard for the deficit. The alternative would have been better.  And though the broad stroke of the budget buzzsaw would have probably resulted in more shutdowns, layoffs and foreclosures, that's just part of what makes capitalism so awesome. Besides, papa is try'na come up on a new casita, anyway.

I suppose in the end, we really are one nation under God(?), mostly divisible with liberty and economic self-interest for all, after all.

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