October 16, 2012
1. What the hell is the fiscal cliff?
I'm actually not clear on this. If memory serves, it's some terrible thing that will happen right after December 31, 2012 (a little over two months from now) if Congress, which acts always as a slow, dumb and blind beast, does not get its act together and do something about it.
2. Yes, but what is it?
Again, going from memory, when Congress was last faced with the notional illusion of a "debt ceiling," like the little kids they are they decided not to deal with it right there and then but told themselves that if they didn't really, for real, deal with it by December 31, 2012, that (in order not to have to think about it again and make difficult decisions) that all sorts of "Draconian" things would automatically happen (as if, in other words, they had not set these very things in motion by deferring a decision). Among these terrible things are the expiration of the so-called "Bush tax cuts" (the reduction of the top marginal rate on income); the 2% FICA reduction; various other tax "relief" measures piled on in the endless pandering to the electorate which has been much in vogue since the economy collapsed; and (the Big Enchilada) 25% reductions in all "discretionary" spending categories, which would include, amazingly, defense spending, but exempt such old standbys as Social Security, Medicare and interest payments on the national debt.
3. Isn't this kind of a mindless, stupid way to do things?
Well, yes of course. The important thing to remember is that Congress wasn't the least bit sincere in this pantomime of fiscal probity. The poison pill lodged in the middle of all this stuff is the reduction in defense spending. That just isn't going to happen. Since the United States, at the moment, is fighting about 14 wars worldwide, Republicans and Democrats alike can point to the need (as always) to "support the troops in harm's way/in the field/fighting to keep us free" and (reluctantly) extend the deadline on the fiscal cliff (that's a mixed metaphor - maybe "cantilever out" on the fiscal cliff) so that Wile E. Coyote has a little more running room before the moment of truth.
4. How long will Congress keep extending the deadline on the fiscal cliff?
Essentially, till the freaking cows come home. One thing to remember about the Republicans and Democrats infesting the building under the Capitol Dome: it isn't actually their money, all this tax revenue and cash they raise by borrowing all the time. They don't really care. They could solve these problems if they wanted to, but they don't want to. They use all this money to solicit bribes (campaign donations) from crony corporations who feed off the federal budget. Other than the Entitlement programs, which have dedicated taxes of their own and thus are not the least bit interesting to Congress, other than as irritating drains on what little money America has left. But you can't literally give the American people nothing and remain in office, so they live with it.
5. Why is imagery from The Roadrunner cartoons used so much in discussing this issue?
The short answer is that public discourse in this country suffers from a paucity of imagination and cultural references. There are essentially only two metaphors used to discuss every dismal facet of the modern American economy: the Titanic (and generally rearranging the deck chairs thereof); and Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff and hovering briefly in midair. At some point, you'd think the pundits would realize these tropes are completely played. Then again, one would think that this "debt ceiling" nonsense would fade away as well, but there's not much chance of that either.