Nearly all the great minds in America seem to agree. The smart, strategic, ideal budget policy for the United States just now, we're told, would take action to avoid sharp and immediate tax hikes or spending cuts. While these would reduce the ponderous federal deficit, the danger is too great that the resulting "fiscal drag" could trip up a still-gimpy economic recovery.
But at the very same time, say just about all the great minds, the nation must commit itself — with an iron-clad resolve — to tough-minded, long-term deficit and debt reduction beginning in the not-too-distant future, when the economy will be better able to bear the burden.
No doubt all this is splendid advice in light of our economic circumstances. But in light of human nature and the nature of politics, it could merely be high-quality wishful thinking.
In the long, silly history of our species, has there ever been a human being with a lousy habit to break who wasn't eager to adopt exactly this type of strategic plan — indulge today, abstain tomorrow?
"Nobody can lose weight during the holidays. Right after the new year, I'll go on that caveman diet."
"I'm finished with gambling for good. I just need to win back what I lost first."
"Things are a little stressful right now. I'll quit smoking after the election."
Most of us recognize this sort of childlike moonshine in regular life — at least when it's coming from somebody else. But place it in the public-policy arena, detailed as part of multipronged program to restore America's greatness, and we fall for it almost every time.
We may be about to fall for it again out of fear of falling off the "fiscal cliff" that looms before us in January. The holidays will be over by then, you might say, and there's some danger that our leaders might actually keep their most recent ironclad promise to change America's ways.
But don't worry yourself sick over the prospect.
Back in 2011, you'll recall, congressional Republicans and President Obama squared off in a showdown over raising the federal debt ceiling. They ended up agreeing to empower a congressional "supercommittee" to devise an intelligent long-term plan to balance the nation's books. And to show how serious they were, they enacted legislation providing that if the supercommittee failed, a sweeping set of clumsy and damaging spending cuts and tax hikes would automatically take effect come 2013.
Well, guess what. The clumsy and damaging deficit-reduction plan approaches. And nobody with any sense wants to go through with it. So almost all the great minds are demanding that Congress and the president break this painful and imprudent promise and instead compromise on another indulge-today, abstain-tomorrow plan.
To drop the sarcasm for a moment, among the people calling for action to avoid the fiscal cliff are the bipartisan team of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, of the much-discussed (but so far not heeded) Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction commission. They truly are quality minds — grown-ups with the country's best interests at heart. They stopped at the Minneapolis Star Tribune's offices last week as part of national tour to warn that going off the fiscal cliff could plunge America into a new recession. But they also emphasize that disaster is just as certain — only slightly less imminent — if the nation refuses to face dry-eyed decisions to produce a longer-term debt solution.
Both spending cuts and tax increases are absolutely necessary, Bowles said. But the fiscal cliff "is the dumb way to do it."
He's right, of course. But what if the "dumb way" is the only way in America's repertoire these days?
All that is required to implement the fiscal-cliff approach to deficit reduction is a bit more political gridlock. We can do political gridlock. Some additional denial of reality, too, might be needed. We can do denial.
The smart way to resolve the debt crisis would require a fair bit more. It would require that Americans broadly stop telling themselves that only somebody else is responsible for the country's budget mess, that only somebody else needs to pay higher taxes, and that only programs somebody else values need to be cut. It would require that politicians start telling Americans the truth, and that voters reward them for it.
Honestly, can we do all that? Or is the nation likely to exhaust its strength compromising to adopt the indulge-today part of our "new" strategy — that is, backing away from the fiscal cliff — and somehow never get around to the abstain-tomorrow part? That is, until an even more perilous crisis is upon us.
D.J. Tice is the Minneapolis Star Tribune's commentary editor. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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