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What the Name “Taxmageddon” Tells Us About Washington and Fiscal Policy

I think you can learn a lot about how options are artificially shaped and limited in Washington by this lede to a story about the fiscal cliff:

Another line in the sand has been drawn as Congress faces a daunting lame-duck year-end fiscal crisis dubbed around Capitol Hill as “Taxmaggedon.”

OK, so we know that at the end of the year there is are several expiring policies that need to be dealt with. On the tax side, you have the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, and the payroll tax cut, along with the alternative minimum tax patch (something habitually extended every year) and a few other corporate tax breaks. On the spending side, you have the $1.2 trillion trigger cuts to defense and discretionary spending, which are huge for the 2013 fiscal year. The Center for a Responsible Federal Budget acknowledges that these cuts would have a more disruptive impact on economic growth than the expiring tax measures. And they aren’t the only expirations on the spending side. Extended unemployment benefits run out at the end of 2012 as well.

So you put this all together, this mix of tax-side and spending-side expiring measures, and you get the nickname used on Capitol Hill: “Taxmaggedon.” Not “the fiscal cliff,” certainly not “BudgetCutocalypse.” No, all the focus is on those tax cuts. And I guarantee you that the solution will be focused on that as well.

Why, just look at the content of this article. It’s about how Harry Reid sent a letter to Senate Republicans on fiscal policy, particularly this fiscal cliff. In it, Reid doesn’t really question the spending cuts slated for the end of the year; in fact, he vows to carry out “the deficit reduction we enacted.” He hopes that the cuts will force a re-evaluation and a new agreement on a different deficit reduction plan. But really, Reid’s goal is to capture some more revenues. Here’s the key section:

“The American people want a balanced approach to fiscal policy that combines smart spending cuts with revenue measures that ask millionaires and corporations to pay their fair share.”

The only thing on which both parties disagree is the tax part. There’s broad agreement on the cuts.

I would argue that the American people want an economy that enables them to get a job with good wages and benefits, if they want one. That’s what they haven’t been able to get for the last four years, and more beyond that. And it’s simply not the case that a broad deficit reduction strategy, regardless of the mix, matches with the fiscal policy Reid describes here. In fact, the opposite is true: austerity carries deep risks to economic growth in the near term, especially from spending cuts that aren’t really being challenged. As more evidence, the OECD said today that a US recovery would be derailed by the fiscal cliff.

Other than a cookie from DC establishment types, applauding the “wise centrist” path, I don’t really understand what the strategy is here. I know partisan Democrats like to accuse Republicans of deliberately sabotaging the economy, and I don’t think that’s far off. But what about this act of self-sabotage?

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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