Craig Frucht | Axes to Grind
Serenity now, insanity later
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 22:02
For the last two years, Americans have lived in what feels like a constant state of looming economic destruction. And everyone has started to feel very “meh” about the whole thing.
Barring a last-minute compromise — it’s always barring a last-minute compromise, isn’t it? — 750,000 Americans will lose their jobs, millions more will lose their unemployment benefits and state governments that are already cash-strapped will see immediate reductions in federal funds starting at the end of the week.
The cause of all this misery is not an international blowup or a tech bubble bursting or some other kind of difficult-to-foresee calamity. The federal government intentionally manufactured the conditions leading to the present crisis because Congressional Republicans felt they needed a poker chip to force President Barack Obama to take seriously their calls for deficit reduction — a fixation that many economists feel is misplaced right now given the fragile state of the economy.
Here’s the situation summed up another way: Two years ago, Congress manufactured a crisis over raising the debt ceiling, an act of absolutely zero economic significance whatsoever. To solve that crisis, President Obama agreed to the creation of a new crisis set to occur in 2012. Part of the solution for the second crisis was to invent yet another, smaller crisis pegged for March 1, this Friday.
Perhaps this might all be within a galaxy’s distance of responsible governance if Republicans were playing the long game to ensure the long-term health of the economy. Instead, they’ve manufactured a frantic series of near-meltdowns in order to make a tiny dent in a debt problem that really shouldn’t be a priority right now anyway.
But that’s all old news. The 2011 debt ceiling crisis and last December’s looming “fiscal cliff” earned weeks of breathless media coverage and deeply shook financial markets. This time around, Americans have responded mainly with a yawn. Even a story as critical as the government gambling with the nation’s economic fortunes and the imminent prospect of massive job losses can only hold people’s attention for so long before it gets old.
That indifference will cost the American people, however. It exerts considerably less pressure on Republicans, who polls show will bear the brunt of the blame should the cuts go through, to negotiate a deal. Any deal they negotiate with Obama would include a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. Why should they compromise if their best shot at getting a package consisting purely of spending is to do nothing?
It’s true that these aren’t exactly the cuts Republicans want — they take far too little from entitlement programs and far too much from Defense — but many Republicans have come to view them as the closest they’ll come to a victory while Obama is president. And Americans’ apparent indifference to the spending cuts feeds their excitement, because they’re now betting that the political backlash of the victory won’t even be that costly.
Americans are indifferent, however, not because they don’t care about imminent job losses, but because they’ve seen so many down-to-the-wire fiscal negotiations over the last two years that they have no reason to believe Congress and the president won’t come to some sort of agreement to avert disaster. But this time, several Republicans including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) have openly expressed enthusiasm for the sequester, and Obama has made no serious effort to engage Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R−Ky.) in negotiations.
Once the cuts happen and Americans are confronted with the lost jobs, the decline in state benefits, and the long airport lines that experts are predicting, that indifference will fade, and the pressure will be stronger than ever for Boehner’s Republicans to cooperate with the president.
Craig Frucht is a senior majoring in political science and psychology. He can be reached at Craig.Frucht@tufts.edu.