Who's the Chicken?

31 Dec 2012

The world waits with bated breath for an outcome of the ongoing fiscal cliff talks in Washington with much the same anticipation that accompanied the end of the Mayan calendar on December 21. As it happened the end of the world was not to be, and sadly, a grand bargain on how to tackle America’s sickly finances may not grace the news headlines either. There will in all probability be a last minute deal, a fudge of sorts that merely postpones a long-term solution to America’s burgeoning debt.


Back in 2011, the Obama administration came to blows with the Republicans on raising the debt ceiling for the US government and as part of the compromise that broke the impasse both parties agreed to point a gun to their foreheads to ensure a long-term solution was agreed on by the end of this year. This gun is the so-called fiscal cliff: a combination of draconian tax increases and spending cuts worth about 5% of GDP over a year that would kick in on January 2nd and are likely to topple America’s fragile economy back into recession. No one in their right minds would contemplate rolling out such a harsh package at this stage of the American recovery, and indeed the whole world (American politicians included) assumed the fiscal cliff would be enough to ensure a deal is passed in Washington. The question now is what kind of deal.

Initially Mr Obama had pushed for a rise in tax rates for those earning over $250,000 a year, subsequently rising that threshold to $400,000. He has also agreed to change the way Social Security benefits are indexed to inflation and called for a two-year extension of the debt ceiling. For his part John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, has also made some concessions. He had conceded that tax rates could rise for those earning over $1m a year and the revenue he is prepared to see gathered over ten years now stands at $1 trillion.  However the suicidal polarisation of US politics makes any reasonable deal unpalatable to one or both of the parties.

The concession to allow the Bush-era payroll tax cuts to expire for those earning over $1m a year came under Mr Boehner’s Plan B, which still left a fiscal tightening of nearly 3% of GDP over a year. As it happens even this largely symbolic tax rise (the Americans affected by it number about 400,000, or 0.3% of tax filers) was anathema to the fiscal hawks in the G.O.P. and so they promptly proceeded to reject it.

The odds now seem to be in Mr Obama’s favour. Whilst a grand bargain which involves a package of spending cuts and tax rises worth at least 2% of GDP to stabilise the debt level is not likely to emerge from the last-ditch negotiations going on right now, the G.O.P. has manoeuvred itself into a corner. Mr Obama’s fall-back position involves a minimalist bill that would prevent an income tax rise on the middle class and extends vital unemployment insurance for Americans looking for a job. If Republicans voted against this for whatever ideological reasons, they would essentially be voting for a tax rise on ordinary Americans. Given that recent polls have found that 53% of Americans would blame the Republicans if the country toppled over the cliff, it is a powerful incentive for them to compromise to avoid becoming the subject of public opprobrium and being eternally branded as the party of the rich as the whole country reels back into recession.

Unfortunately the deadlock is not just about economics. November’s election painted a dreary picture in terms of the polarisation of the country. The number of states that was decided marginally, i.e. by five percentage points or less, decreased from six to four, meaning that incumbents have safer seats and can ignore the needs of the country in favour of their constituents. More worryingly however is the fact that these seats may be safe from the rival party, but, especially for the Republicans, they dramatically increase the battles at the primaries. To vote for a tax rise now would be for many Republicans analogous to committing political suicide. Of course there are moderates within the G.O.P., and both their political futures and the passing of a deal on the fiscal cliff rest on them being able to form a large enough block to give them political cover. The ideological polarisation within the G.O.P. therefore matches that of the entire country, and the repercussions of such a divide are crucial not just for the fiscal cliff but for the other items on Obama’s agenda, such as climate change and gun control. 

Whatever final deal emerges then, it will most probably not be a definitive one for the deficit but it will give us a clue as to the turn American politics will be taking. As ever, it’s not just the economy, stupid.

By Julia Fioretti

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