Monday, December 31, 2012

Conceder In Chief?

OK, I’ve had my own sorta-kinda briefing on the apparent fiscal cliff deal, and I’m pretty much with Noam Scheiber. Viewed on its own, it’s a bad and upsetting deal but not as terrible as initial rumors had it. But the strategic consequences are likely to be very bad indeed, and in very short order too.

As background, it’s important to understand what Obama clearly could have gotten just by going over the cliff. Basically, he could have gotten the whole of the Bush high-end tax cuts reversed, which would mean close to $800 billion in revenue over the next decade. What he couldn’t get, or at least couldn’t count on getting, were various spending items. This included the extension of unemployment benefits and various “refundables” on things like the Earned Income Tax Credit, that is, pieces of tax legislation that end up having the government cut checks to families instead of the other way around.

So what Obama appears to have done is trade away part of the revenue from high-income taxpayers in return for some of the spending items he wanted. Extended unemployment benefits for a year, and the refundables either extended in perpetuity or for 5 years.

The revenue loss seems to be on the order of $150 billion, or maybe a bit less. The reasons it isn’t bigger is that while the threshold for the top marginal rate is moving up to 450K, the thresholds for other things — phaseout of deductions, higher taxes on dividends and capital gains — aren’t going up, they’re staying at 250K.

And at least one positive thing can be said: no giveaway on Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. Basically, no spending cuts at all.

If you want think about the longer-term implications here, they’re ambiguous. The deficit is no problem right now, but there will eventually be a collision between the rising costs of social insurance programs and the inadequacy of the revenue base. Something will have to give.

There were two big risks, from a progressive point of view, in Obama’s eagerness to get a Grand Bargain. One was that he would allow the Bush tax cuts to be locked in, making it very hard to get additional revenue; the other was that he would give in on fundamental benefit cuts. Well, he did #1, partially, but didn’t do #2 at all. This sets up a future confrontation: it will be very hard for progressives to raise taxes, but also very hard for conservatives to cut those social programs.

I suppose the best case you can make here is that raising rates on the top 2 percent was never going to be enough anyway, so Obama getting less from that than he should have isn’t that big a deal. And the nightmare in which he cut Medicare and/or Social Security, only to have Republicans run against those cuts in 2014, seems to have been averted.

OK, now for the really bad news. Anyone looking at these negotiations, especially given Obama’s previous behavior, can’t help but reach one main conclusion: whenever the president says that there’s an issue on which he absolutely, positively won’t give ground, you can count on him, you know, giving way — and soon, too. The idea that you should only make promises and threats you intend to make good on doesn’t seem to be one that this particular president can grasp.

And that means that Republicans will go right from this negotiation into the debt ceiling in the firm belief that Obama can be rolled.

At that point he can redeem himself by holding firm — but because the Republicans don’t think he will, they will play tough, almost surely forcing him to actually hit the ceiling with all the costs that entails. And look, if I were a Republican I would also be betting that he’ll cave.

So Obama has set himself and the nation up for a much uglier confrontation than we would have had if he had set a negotiating position and held to it.

Update: I should mention that on one issue, the estate tax, the problem is apparently with the Senate; there are, unfortunately, some heartland Dem Senators who are extremely solicitous of the handful of super-wealthy families in their states, so that Obama’s people don’t think they can get a majority for higher taxes here. It’s bizarre: states like New Jersey have far more large estates, not just total but per capita, than states like Montana, but it’s the Senators from the latter that are eager to preserve the inherited privileges of the few.

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