Fiscal Cliff: The 'Let It Burn' Lobby May Be on to Something

Playwright George S. Kaufman penned an oft-performed one-act play titled The Still Alarm that has some bearing on the current political situation in Washington relating to fiscal cliff negotiations.

Kaufman, who wrote for the Marx Brothers and collaborated with giants like Moss Hart and Irving Berlin on Broadway, gave very specific stage directions for the production of the play:

Vital Note: It is important that the entire play should be acted calmly and politely in the manner of an English drawing room comedy. No actor ever raises his voice; every line must be read as if it were an invitation to a cup of tea.

The play is about two upper-crust hotel guests who, after finishing a fine meal in their room, are interrupted by a bellhop who informs them the hotel is on fire. True to the stage directions, the lines are delivered politely with nary a hint of panic. Much hilarity ensues as the two gentlemen idly wonder what they should be wearing as they exit the hotel and discuss mundane matters relating to their businesses -- all the while the bellhop makes repeated appearances bringing more calamitous news about the progress of the fire.

Finally, the firemen show up. Rather than do anything to put out the fire, one of them picks up a violin and begins to play "Keep the Home Fires Burning."

One gets the sense that Kaufman was quite prescient about the future political culture in Washington as he wrote this little skit. As we approach the fiscal cliff, the sanguinity of the major players in the face of what truly are catastrophic budget cuts and tax increases is remarkable. Secretary Geithner's response to whether the administration is prepared to go over the fiscal cliff is surreal:

During an interview with CNBC, Geithner was asked if the White House was willing to dive off the cliff if Republicans don’t accept a deal that raises tax rates for those making more than $250,000.

“Oh, absolutely," he responded. "Again, there's no prospect in an agreement that doesn't involve the rates going up on the top 2 percent of the wealthiest."

Delivered just as if it were "an invitation to a cup of tea" rather than threatening Armageddon for American business and the taxpayer.

Geithner isn't the only one playing out Kaufman's nightmare scenario. The president of the United States is fiddling while the economy is threatened with a conflagration:

"I think there is recognition that maybe they can accept some rate increases as long as it is combined with serious entitlement reform and additional spending cuts," the president said. "And if we can get the leadership on the Republican side to take that framework, to acknowledge that reality, then the numbers actually aren't that far apart."

He added that "we can probably solve this in about a week -- it's not that tough."

We can solve this in a week and please pass the crumpets. "Serious" entitlement reform in a week? "Reality"? Whatever Michele is feeding him -- magic mushrooms perhaps -- a little cold porridge and stale bread might bring the president back down to earth. To paraphrase the great statesman Han Solo: "Reforming entitlements ain't like dustin' crops, (boy). Without precise negotiations you could run afoul of the AARP or bounce too close to the third rail of American politics and that would end your hopes real quick, wouldn't it?"

Perhaps the president is referring to a "biblical week" to finalize negotiations once the GOP leadership caves on tax rates -- sort of like the young earthers who think that a biblical "day" could have been millions of years, except the media won't call him an anti-science mountebank because...well, he's not a Republican.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are busy tearing at each other, as John Boehner channels Uncle Joe Stalin by purging a couple of back-bench tea party House members while the conservative base is heating the tar, gathering the feathers, and picking up their pitchforks aiming to "depose" the speaker of the House. Perhaps this is the reason Geithner and the president are so calm about the situation. In effect, Boehner and the Republican leadership don't have to negotiate with Obama. Their true adversaries are the growing number of conservatives who have joined the "Let It Burn" (LIB) lobby -- the pyromaniac wing of the Republican party.