Would You Meet Your Killer Halfway?
Fiscal cliff deal raises a question. Is compromise always reasonable?
January 8, 2013 - 7:00 am
Obstructionist. Intransigent. Obstinate.
These words among others, used in reference to the Tea Party and fiscally conservative members of Congress, bark past teeth bared in animosity. Critics of the Tea Party lament its uncompromising stance against proposals like the recent fiscal cliff deal. Content to tolerate mere rhetoric, these critics draw the line at standing on principle when it actually counts. NPR’s Alan Greenblatt places the Tea Party at a crossroads:
In the coming year, the returning [Tea Party Republican] members [in Congress] will have to decide whether they want to continue practicing a politics of purity, advocating strong and unyielding positions, or accept that governance generally requires a good deal of compromise.
Compromise sounds reasonable on its face. Absent any context, the term invites a sense of begrudging contentment. Certainly, compromise permeates our everyday lives. Every relationship we engage in requires compromises subtle and plain. It remains true that gestures of goodwill go a long way toward fostering mutually beneficial arrangements. However, that assumes both parties act in good faith. It also assumes that a given compromise serves a profitable long-term goal.
Opponents of the Tea Party have no such qualifications in mind. They advocate compromise as an end in itself. The notion springs from a fundamental reverence in our culture for sacrifice. Misinterpretation and misapplication of Judeo-Christian tenets have fostered an irrational sense of nobility for giving up something of value in exchange for a lesser value or even nothing at all. Such counter-productive sacrifice is demanded from Tea Party-backed members of Congress by folks like International Business Times commentator Joseph Lazzaro. Contemplating the immediate economic repercussions of allowing the country to fall off the fiscal cliff, and writing before the deal’s passage in the House, he explains:
Now, the typical, moderate, independent American, assessing the damage that a long-term failure to reach a budget deal would cause, will no doubt reasonably argue that surely the Tea Party faction will compromise – for the good of the nation. I.E. that the Tea Party will approve the current tax/budget bill.
Unfortunately, however, if that independent American is thinking reasonably, i.e. views a compromise as a rational, prudent stance, he/she is not thinking like a Tea Party member of Congress. Pressured by their extremist supporters, Tea Party members of Congress have shown no inclination to compromise and agree to a fair deal, no matter how much damage that obstruction and intransigence causes to the credit markets and the U.S. and global economies. Obstruction, driven by an extremist conservative ideology – no matter how much financial and economic destruction it triggers – has been the Tea Party’s preferred strategy, if the alternative is a compromise that leads to increased income taxes and an agreement that includes support for the liberal social safety net.
Lazzaro’s assessment packs in much to unwind. First note that compromise is associated with positive connotations – typical, moderate, independent, reasonable, rational, prudent, thinking, fair. These are common correlations in our political discourse. Compromise is inherently moderate, the defining characteristic of independence, the mark of a rational thinking person, a badge of fair-minded prudence. Naturally, unwillingness to compromise reveals opposing characteristics – extremism, obstruction, intransigence. Nevermind the context in which a compromise occurs, or the details of what it bodes. Giving up is the new American way.
Of course, upon applying a cursory amount of thought, we realize that compromise should never be an end unto itself. Context matters. Long-term consequences must be considered. Greenblatt is correct insomuch as governance requires compromise in many instances. Nevertheless, the overriding objective of governance according to our Declaration of Independence is the preservation of individual rights. Where one party seeks to tread upon life, liberty, and our means to pursue happiness, compromise makes as much sense as meeting your killer halfway.
While each man hails from an opposing political party, former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Democrat Erskine Bowles agree that the deal reached to avert the fiscal cliff leaves much to be desired. Specifically, the co-chairs of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform agree that spending cuts are necessary to address the national debt. The Hill’s Sam Baker details:
“This thing isn’t going to do anything, really,” Simpson said Sunday on “Meet the Press.”
He said tackling the deficit will still require significant spending cuts, especially to entitlement programs. Simpson lambasted Senate leaders for not working together, and he noted that increases in lifespan are rapidly straining Medicare and Social Security.
The spending cuts enacted in the Budget Control Act and last week’s tax agreement solved about half the problems, Bowles said. He said Congress needs to cut about $1.6 trillion more in spending and raise about $600 billion more in revenues by closing loopholes.
Here we have two men unlikely to agree on the details of where spending should be cut and in what amounts. Yet they agree that spending must be cut. That is a context in which compromise is possible, where any result gets the nation closer to the Tea Party goal of fiscal responsibility. When it is agreed that spending must be cut, haggling determines only the degree of the fix. On the other hand, the question of whether to cut spending cannot be answered with compromise. The decision is binary. Spending will be cut, or not. The Tea party stands on that hill, ready to die for spending cuts.
Joseph Lazzaro describes a scenario where failure to capitulate on the fiscal cliff deal offered to the House would have resulted in widespread economic disaster:
But if the Tea Party persists in its “No tax increases, ever” intransigence or it otherwise amends the bill with deep spending cuts that would be DOA in the Senate, jittery financial markets will likely interpret the latter as “gridlock city” in Washington, and look out! U.S. and global stock and bond markets could plunge in the days ahead.
Lazzaro presents a nearsighted context favorable to his characterization of compromise as reasonable. But what of the horizon ahead of us in the wake of compromise? As Simpson and Bowles point out, nothing of consequence has been done to address the national debt, $16 trillion and growing. What are the long-term economic consequences of that?
Tea Party critic and New York Times writer Steven Rattner breaks leftist taboo to tell us:
Government borrowing is still debt that must eventually be paid off, just as we were taught in introductory economics.
Failing to repay the debt would mean not only the ugliness of default but also depriving the next generation of whatever savings their parents parked in government bonds.
And remember that just a small fraction of Treasuries are owned by individual Americans. Institutions and many foreign entities own the rest and are not about to give up claims that they are owed.
The more realistic alternative [to imagining debt will somehow disappear] of continuing to service that debt offers the unattractive eventual prospect of either higher taxes or sharp cutbacks in government programs, or both.
Rattner describes just the tip of the iceberg. U.S. News & World Report financial writer Gary Foreman offers essential reading in “16 Things You Need to Know about Government Debt.” Take the time to review it. He elaborates on the dangers of inflation and how the devaluation of the dollar reduces every consumer’s spending power, obliterates savings, and strangles business and employment opportunities.
Perhaps it has not occurred to critics like Lazzaro that our real fiscal cliff overlooks the economic consequences Foreman describes. In that context, what does it matter if stock and bond markets plunge in the immediate future? Worrying about tomorrow’s markets while ignoring the consequences of unchecked spending is like refusing to set a broken bone on account of immediate pain, hardly reasonable or prudent.
Foreman’s most critical observation is that higher taxes cannot solve the debt crisis:
According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, if you taxed income over $250,000 you’d raise $56 billion next year and only solve 5 percent of a $1 trillion dollar deficit.
The percentage reassures no more when adjusted for the $400,000 mark agreed to by Congress. So when Tea Party-backed Republicans in the House stand firm against a non-solution like the one just passed, they prove themselves to be the adults in the room.
As the Tea Party continues to engage the culture, confronting blind reverence for compromise will be a necessity. The characterization of the Tea Party as uncompromising is silly in a context where every choice offered by Democrats is a different way to die. That point has to be made aggressively by Tea Party members of Congress as they approach the debt ceiling battle. If President Obama and Senator Reid want compromise, they are going to have to start from the same point of fundamental agreement where Simpson and Bowles are. Spending must be cut. From there, we can negotiate how much.
Of course, that’s unlikely to be how the debate is framed. The self-styled progressives dominating the White House and the Senate know all too well how compromise works. They are masters at crafting contextual narratives in which any deal will default in their favor. In the case of taxes, the preferred tactic is to propose vast tax increases and then “meet Republicans halfway” by offering lower hikes on fewer earners, all leading to an endgame of accusing opponents of “protecting millionaires and billionaires.” Agreeing to public discourse on those terms is agreeing to lose in advance.
Instead, stout-hearted Republicans and their Tea Party supporters need to define the terms of debate. Any proposal absent real spending cuts cannot be taken seriously, and short-range fear-mongering like Lazzaro’s must be answered with sobering facts like Foreman’s. When compromise is eventually reached, let it be in service of fiscal responsibility. Otherwise, what’s the point?
More on the future of the Tea Party at PJ Lifestyle from Walter Hudson: