The fiscal cliff deal: America’s European moment
Posted by Ram Kumar Shrestha on January 4, 2013
The troubling similarities between the fiscal mismanagement in Washington and the mess in the euro zone
FOR the past three years America’s leaders have looked on Europe’s management of the euro crisis with barely disguised contempt. In the White House and on Capitol Hill there has been incredulity that Europe’s politicians could be so incompetent at handling an economic problem; so addicted to last-minute, short-term fixes; and so incapable of agreeing on a long-term strategy for the single currency.
Those criticisms were all valid, but now those who made them should take the planks from their own eyes. America’s economy may not be in as bad a state as Europe’s, but the failures of its politicians—epitomised by this week’s 11th-hour deal to avoid the calamity of the “fiscal cliff”—suggest that Washington’s pattern of dysfunction is disturbingly similar to the euro zone’s in three depressing ways.
The first is an inability to get beyond patching up. The euro crisis deepened because Europe’s politicians serially failed to solve the single currency’s structural weaknesses, resorting instead to a succession of temporary fixes, usually negotiated well after midnight. America’s problems are different. Rather than facing an imminent debt crisis, as many European countries do, it needs to deal with the huge long-term gap between tax revenue and spending promises, particularly on health care, while not squeezing the economy too much in the short term. But its politicians now show themselves similarly addicted to kicking the can down the road at the last minute.
This week’s agreement, hammered out between Republican senators and the White House on New Year’s Eve, passed by the Senate in the early hours of New Year’s Day and by the House of Representatives later the same day, averted the spectre of recession. It eliminated most of the sweeping tax increases that were otherwise due to take effect from January 1st, except for those on the very wealthy, and temporarily put off all the threatened spending cuts (see article). Like many of Europe’s crisis summits, that staved off complete disaster: rather than squeezing 5% out of the economy (as the fiscal cliff implied) there will now be a more manageable fiscal squeeze of just over 1% of GDP in 2013. Markets rallied in relief.
But for how long? The automatic spending cuts have merely been postponed for two months, by which time Congress must also vote to increase the country’s debt ceiling if the Treasury is to be able to go on paying its bills. So more budgetary brinkmanship will be on display in the coming weeks.
And the temporary fix ignored America’s underlying fiscal problems. It did nothing to control the unsustainable path of “entitlement” spending on pensions and health care (the latter is on track to double as a share of GDP over the next 25 years); nothing to rationalise America’s hideously complex and distorting tax code, which includes more than $1 trillion of deductions; and virtually nothing to close America’s big structural budget deficit. (Putting up tax rates at the very top simply does not raise much money.) Viewed through anything other than a two-month prism, it was an abject failure. The final deal raised less tax revenue than John Boehner, the Republican speaker in the House of Representatives, once offered during the negotiations, and it included none of the entitlement reforms that President Barack Obama was once prepared to contemplate.
The reason behind this lamentable outcome is the outsize influence of narrow interest groups—which marks a second, unhappy parallel with Europe. The inability of Europeans to rise above petty national concerns, whether over who pays for bail-outs or who controls bank supervision, has prevented them from making the big compromises necessary to secure the single currency’s future. America’s Democrats and Republicans have proved similarly incapable of reaching a grand bargain; both are far too driven by their parties’ extremists and too focused on winning concessions from the other side to work steadily together to secure the country’s fiscal future.
The third parallel is that politicians have failed to be honest with voters. Just as Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande have avoided coming clean to the Germans and the French about what it will take to save the single currency, so neither Mr Obama nor the Republican leaders have been brave enough to tell Americans what it will really take to fix the fiscal mess. Democrats pretend that no changes are necessary to Medicare (health care for the elderly) or Social Security (pensions). Republican solutions always involve unspecified spending cuts, and they regard any tax rise as socialism. Each side prefers to denounce the other, reinforcing the very polarisation that is preventing progress.
Fixed today, hobbled tomorrow
Optimists will point out that America is unlikely to face a European-style debt crisis in the near future, but the slow-burning fuse is itself a problem. One positive side-effect of Europe’s crisis is that it has forced euro-zone countries to raise their retirement ages and rationalise pensions and health-care promises. America, which has the biggest structural budget deficit in the rich world bar Japan, will become an outlier in its failure to deal with the fiscal consequences of an ageing population. Its ageing is slower than Europe’s but, as its debt piles up and business and consumer confidence is dampened, the eventual crunch will be more painful.
The saddest thing about this week’s deal is how unaware Messrs Obama and Boehner seem to be of the wider damage their petty partisanship is doing to their country. National security is not just about the number of tanks or rockets you have. As it has failed to deal with the single currency, Europe’s standing has crumbled in the world. Why should developing countries trust American leadership, when it seems incapable of solving anything at home? And while the West’s foremost democracy stays paralysed, China is making decisions and forging ahead.
This week Mr Obama boasted that he had fulfilled his mandate by raising taxes on the rich. In fact, by failing once again to clear up America’s fundamental fiscal trouble, he and Republican leaders are building Brussels on the Potomac.