Now that President Obama has been re-elected, the media is finally free to focus on something besides the clueless undecided voters in Ohio, Florida, and Colorado. The brightest and shiniest object that has attracted its attention is the "fiscal cliff" that we are expected to drive over at the end of the year unless Congress and the President can agree to turn the wheel or apply the brakes.
Fresh from his victory, the President took time today to let the nation know how he proposes to avoid the cliff: to raise taxes on those Americans who make more than $250,000 per year. He made clear than no one making less than that will be asked to pay any more. The two percent of taxpayers that the President is targeting earn 24.1% of all income and pay 43.6% (as of 2008) of all personal federal income taxes. Sounds like a fair share to me. But the four or five percent tax increases on those earners that are being proposed would only yield around $30 to $40 billion per year in added revenue, a drop in the federal bucket. Even if they were to double the amount that they pay our deficit would only be cut by about one third (even if those increases did not trigger an economic slowdown).
So what exactly is this looming menace, and why is it so dangerous? Stripped of its rhetorically charged language the fiscal cliff is simply a legal trigger that will trim the deficit in 2013 by automatically implementing spending cuts and tax increases. In other words, the government will spend less, and more of what it does spend will be paid for with taxes rather than debt. Isn't this exactly what both parties, and the public, more or less want? The fiscal cliff means that the federal budget deficit will be immediately cut in half, shrinking to approximately $641 billion in 2013 from the approximately $1.1 trillion in 2012. What is so terrible about that? I would argue that there is a greater danger in avoiding the cliff than driving over it.
If you recall, the cliff was created by a deal last year when Congress couldn't find ways to trim the deficit in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. When they failed to reach an agreement, Congress knew they had to raise the debt ceiling anyway. The resulting Budget Control Act of 2011, signed in August of that year, offered the pretense that they were dealing with our long-term fiscal crisis and not simply raising the debt ceiling with no strings attached. This was done not only to appease some House Republicans, who had threatened to vote against a debt ceiling increase, but to satisfy the bond rating agencies that had threatened a down-grade if Congress failed to act.