Stuck Between the Fiscal “Cliff” and a Hard Place — But There’s Another Way

The “fiscal cliff” is the kind of story the media gobble right up — hold the skepticism. The right-wing is serving up a mouthwatering tale of runaway debt, certain doom and inevitable sacrifice. Meanwhile, everyone to the left of House Speaker John Boehner is too polite to call a turkey a turkey.

Well, I’ll say it: The fiscal cliff is a made-up crisis. A big, fat fraud. Not to mention, a fraud that disproportionately threatens the well-being of women and their families.

I applaud those like Richard (RJ) Eskow and Michael Lind who are speaking truth to power, but we need more folks to help spread this critical message. And we need policy-makers to hear it.

Right now the people of the United States are being presented with two terrible options:

a) Plunge over the fiscal cliff, where we will encounter a set of painful and unpopular spending cuts and tax increases; OR

b) Avoid the cliff by cutting the very same programs, along with putting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the chopping block — all in exchange for the privilege of enacting tax reform that might require the wealthiest to start paying their fair share, or might just fall mostly on the middle class.

This is a self-imposed Sophie’s Choice, as appalling as it is unnecessary. It is based on the false premise that we absolutely must reduce the federal budget deficit immediately, before addressing any of the country’s other urgent problems. To the contrary, it’s the jobs crisis that needs to be addressed right away.

You have to have a heart of stone to ignore the corrosive impact joblessness is having on the millions of women and men who can’t find work due to no fault of their own. Their life’s savings are being depleted, and women have even less savings to fall back on when they are laid off. That’s partly because of the persistent gender wage gap, wherein women are paid, on average, about 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. In addition, more than two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and women in general cluster in lower-wage jobs that don’t include health benefits. For many women, savings is simply not an option, making unemployment a disaster that strikes fast and has a lengthy recovery period.

Setting aside human suffering, if all you care about is lowering the federal budget deficit, the jobs crisis should still be your top priority. That’s because lowering unemployment is probably the single most important thing we can do to reduce the federal budget deficit over the next few years.

Just do the math: A full employment rate means more people with incomes and fewer people needing cash assistance like unemployment insurance. In budget terms, that means more income taxes flowing into the federal treasury and less money flowing out. Job creation plans, like those proposed by Rep. John Conyers and Rep. Jan Schakowsky would not only alleviate suffering; they would also go a long way toward lowering the budget deficit. Even President Obama’s more limited jobs proposal would start moving us in the right direction.

And yet, you don’t hear much about unemployment from conservative Republicans, who are busy following the same old, tired script: Lower taxes for the wealthiest, less regulation on corporations, and less spending on programs that spoil all those lazy moochers. Wait a minute, those sound like the same things Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were selling during the presidential election. How’d that turn out again? That’s right — voters rejected that sales pitch.

Conservative Democrats aren’t much better. Enthralled by the echo chamber inside the Beltway, they keep insisting that now is the time for imposing exactly the sort of austerity policies the voters turned down.

Women in particular stand to lose from Washington’s bogus debate. Both options would cut programs that disproportionately serve and employ women. The fiscal-cliff version at least has the advantage of not cutting Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, which also disproportionately serve and employ women. And neither option contains a clear path to sensible tax policies that protect middle- and lower-income families while demanding tax fairness for the rich.

Despite all of this, we are faced with the spectacle of Democrats like Erskine Bowles (reportedly Wall Street’s pick for President Obama’s next Treasury Secretary), who appear eager to make a deal with conservative Republicans. Bowles told the Washington Post: “I think if you listen carefully to what all the politicians are saying, there’s room to get something done.”

Listen carefully to what all the politicians are saying? How about listening carefully to what the voters are saying? How about remembering that women voters made the difference in the 2012 elections? Women voters want millionaires and billionaires to start paying their fair share of taxes. They don’t want cuts in social programs, like Head Start, food stamps, college tuition assistance, job training or services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, let alone cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.

And since Social Security is a wage replacement insurance system that has nothing to do with the federal budget, it shouldn’t even be part of this conversation. But it’s not the voters who keep inserting it into the debate — it’s the super-rich CEOs who are dead set on weakening and then privatizing Social Security.

If Congress and President Obama would just listen to the voters, they would see that they do not have to choose between the wrong-headed austerity of the fiscal cliff and the failed austerity plan of the Bowles-Simpson Commission. They have it within their power to choose door number three. Just because they constructed doors number one and two back when the debt ceiling needed to be raised, doesn’t mean they can’t consider some new options.

If the 2012 elections showed us anything, it is that our democracy is still functioning well enough for voters to make their voices heard. Throughout the coming election cycles, it is our job to keep voting like we just did until all of the anti-47-percenters are out of office.

In the meantime, President Obama and his allies in Congress must call their bluff. Refuse the false choice of two unacceptable sets of cuts. Show that they have both a compassionate heart and a head for simple arithmetic by pushing for a comprehensive jobs plan that will help reduce the deficit over time and alleviate suffering now.

Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 11/27/2012

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