Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff Kabuki Theater: It's Our Own Fault

Much of America - or, at least, much of the American news media - is glued to the edge of its seat watching the "fiscal cliff" negotiations between President Obama and House Speaker Boehner. Actually, I suspect that most of America is doing holiday shopping, baking cookies, preparing homes for visitors, and attending their kids' school Christmas concerts. But at least the breathless folks at CNN and Fox News are keeping an eye on things for us.

If I'm right about the relative lack of attention Americans are paying to what is obviously an important issue, the reasons are pretty simple. First, it is a very busy time of year and people have a lot to do in their own lives. South Africans don't call December "silly season" for nothing. But more importantly, I think that most people believe that there's going to be a deal, probably at the last minute, probably some kind of compromise that will involve higher taxes (especially on the rich) and some spending cuts. We'll learn about the details when they get announced, so why worry about it until then?

This is actually a pretty reasonable approach, which makes the constant media drumbeat all the more annoying (and ignorable). The annoyance factor isn't helped by the two sides spitting insults at each other when they aren't negotiating, as Boehner did yesterday:
Boehner: White House willing to "slow-walk" up to "fiscal cliff"
Inevitably, there are people who will say "why can't they just act like grown-ups and get this done?" Certainly, any deal that they announce two weeks from now could have been reached already, saving us all a lot of breathless headlines and pundit pontification - not to mention the dreaded "uncertainty" in the markets, which pundits constantly remind us markets hate.

So why don't these guys decide to be grown-ups and just solve this now? Simply put, it's our own fault. The President and the Speaker both answer to a lot of people - they both have multiple constituencies on whom they depend. Obama has a bit of an upper hand, in that he doesn't ever face re-election again, whereas Boehner will be up in two years (and his Speaker's gavel will be re-issued [or not] much sooner than that). But both have a lot of people they have to please if they are going to keep and be effective in their jobs.

Unfortunately, many of those people don't have the "let's solve this through compromise like grown-ups" mindset. They have strong views on the issues, and they want to win. They want "their man" to "fight" for their point of view as hard as possible. Doing anything less is, in their eyes, treasonous.

So there is a built-in disincentive to announce a deal early. Any deal will involve compromises - the grown-ups among us already know that, and are fine with it. But the tribalists are convinced that they can always win more, if they only try a little harder (a little like those who think we could have won in Vietnam if only we had tried a bit more).

So if this afternoon, Obama and Boehner appear at a news conference and announce a deal involving compromise, their respective partisans will howl and gnash their teeth and scream "Traitor! Why aren't you still fighting for What's Right?? You have two more weeks - go push him some more!" The plaudits they would get for being responsible adults will be drowned out by the screams of the petulant children who desperately want "their side" to win.

Under such circumstances, what would you do? Engage in a tacit agreement with the other side - we'll negotiate a deal, keep it quiet, agree to call each other names in public but keep it civil, and then announce our deal at the last possible minute so we can each tell our constituents that we "fought as long and hard as we could". We'll wink and nod and everyone will understand that this is how the game is played. And the hard-core tribalists' grumbling will be kept to a minimum.

In other words, the Kabuki theater that the two sides have been engaged in is our fault - or at least, the fault of those petulant tribalists among us who scream the loudest and refuse to accept compromise. Our politicians don't leave things to the last minute because they're stupid, or hard-headed, or unreasonable. They do it to placate the non-grown-ups among us.

If political leaders and parties had the guts to tell these folks to pound sand, we could have a more mature politics in public. But they can't, because they need the votes. So they pander - and we blame the politicians, and not ourselves, for their pandering.

For me, I've got too much to do this holiday season to hang on every silly word from a politician or a pundit. Chances are that an agreement will be announced at the last minute. Chances are that everyone will claim victory and live to argue another day. And even if that doesn't happen, chances are that the world will go on spinning anyway (the Dec. 21 Mayan Apocalypse notwithstanding). Meanwhile, I've got concerts and Christmas parties and family and friends - the precious things in life - to occupy my time.

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