Laurence Spiegel was my first political hero. Never heard of him? Don’t worry – nor had Google the last time I checked. The one and only time I worked on the campaign team for a British General Election it was for Laurence Spiegel . That was an important election for two reasons: despite polls showing a clear advantage to the incumbent Labour Government, the Tories won an overall majority; and the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 on the grounds that if you were old enough to die for your country, you were old enough to choose the idiots that got you killed. None of this affected me. Laurence Spiegel was the no-hope third-party Liberal candidate for Hendon South who I don’t think even bothered taking the day off work (I didn’t see him at Campaign HQ) and, in 1970, I wasn’t old enough to gain admittance to a cinema to see a war film let alone serve my Queen and country.
I have been following political campaigns ever since and the latest American circus was no exception. But it was too drawn out. There is a bridge in Scotland, the Forth, that is so long that, it is said, when they finish painting it they start again at the other end. In America, it used to be that campaigning for the Presidency started 4 years before polling day ie the day after the previous one. Watching New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie cozying up to Barack Obama in the aftermath of Storm Sandy a week before the election, I could not help feeling that, in a piece of brilliantly cynical political manoeuvering, the world might well be looking at Obama’s successor in the White House.
Election night was a major disappointment. That statement is clearly true for the 48% of voters who picked Romney and did not, like so many of their countryment, exercise their constitutional right to stay home welded to a sofa watching a ball game while trying to break records for calorie consumption. It was also a disappointment for me – and I, disenfranchised by accident of birth, actually wanted Obama to win (or, to be more precise, wanted the Republicans to lose). With the advantage of being 7 hours ahead of New York (some would say 7 light years), I was up with the lark to catch the phut of election night. What a yawn.
Within seconds of Obama hitting 270 electoral college votes and hence guaranteeing a renewal of his Washington lease, what were the pundits talking about? Was it: what will Obama do about the future of world peace ? Was it: what will he do to make America great again? Was it: what is the future for social welfare ? No, sir. In fact, they were talking about tax. TAX! A subject normally reserved for discussion behind closed doors between consenting adults, was the first thing on the lips of the pros. And “reforming our tax code” even made it into Obama’s victory speech in Chicago (which sounded more like the candidate had beaten himself than Mitt Romney).
If you have never heard of the Fiscal Cliff, I suggest you climb right back into that little boat in which you have been drifting without food or water for the last 9 months and enjoy the night sky. As everyone knows, the Fiscal Cliff was Ben Bernanke’s term for the higher taxes and lower government spending that will kick in next January 1st if somebody does not kick Congress’s ass (“bottom” in the Queen’s English) first.
The Fiscal Cliff is, in fact, the unfortunate coincidence of a number of economic legislative events coming together to cause an unmitigated disaster: the end of last year’s temporary payroll tax cuts (resulting in a 2% tax increase for workers); the end of certain tax breaks for businesses; shifts in the alternative minimum tax;, the end of the Bush tax cuts; and the beginning of taxes related to President Obama’s health care law. At the same time, spending cuts previously agreed upon will begin to go into effect. If nothing is done, some experts are predicting a cataclysmic effect on GDP and unemployment.
The question you HAVE to ask yourself is “How did the world’s leading nation get into this mess in the first place?” You couldn’t make it up.
The Bush tax cuts (the famous bits are the lower tax rates on dividends and capital gains) could not be pushed through the front door of Congress back in 2001 and 2003 so they used something called the reconciliation process that allowed them to be imposed temporarily until the end of 2010. By 2010 the House of Representatives was resembling the battlefield at Gettysburg, and Congress extended them for 2 years. As politics go, that is kids’ stuff.
In the summer of 2011 the sparks were really flying. Congress needed to raise legal debt ceilings for the federal government, otherwise the US was going to default on its Sovereign Debt. The Republican controlled House of Representatives was not playing. At the eleventh hour, a compromise was reached whereby, default was avoided and a Bipartisan Committee was established to produce a plan to reduce the deficit over 10 years by $1.2 trillion by late November. There was a sting in the tail that either arose from a genuine desire to get things sorted out or the irrational hatred between the two sides of the House . The House decided that, if the Committee could not reach a conclusion, automatic, and horrendous, cuts would start to kick in 2013. The Committee, its members too busy scratching each other’s eyes out, didn’t make it.
All that remains for us to do now is to sit back and enjoy the fireworks coming out of the lame-duck Congress. Presumably a solution will be reached at midnight on December 31 (or, with retroactive effect, on January 1). In American politics, after a massive buildup, most things end in a Phut rather than a Bang.