We're so worried about the fiscal cliff that we've all but forgotten the end of the 25,000 year Mayan calendar, supposedly on December 21, at which time - depending on who you talk to - the Earth's poles will reverse, the Sun will disappear for awhile, and a select few will enter the Age of Aquarius, when shag haircuts will once again be in style.
Whoa. What if this is no coincidence and the two are related? Maybe the Mayans were off by ten days, and the global catastrophe they predicted was the expiration of tax breaks on New Year's Eve!
I have no evidence linking the Maya to the Tea Party - except that they both liked to dress up in costumes.
One of the weirdest events of 2012 - putting aside for a moment the melting of the polar ice caps - occurred at exactly 1:00 am the day after Election Day. Without any warning, the discussion of creating more jobs in America completely disappeared. Jobs had dominated American politics since September 17, 2011, when a group of angry, out of work Americans occupied a park near Wall Street and ignited a debate over the distribution of wealth in the U.S. between the .1% super-haves and the 99.9% have-nots. Eventually the presidential race became a debate over the best way to generate more jobs.
But the moment Romney stepped up to the podium to concede he had lost the election, the concern over jobs vanished. Now, we are back once again to debating the U.S. budget deficit - the issue Romney and his supporters cared the most about. The losers' agenda is now driving the national debate.
It's as if the polls got reversed on Election Day.
That's the kind of strange phenomenon that occurs when our national leadership sacks out, as it did in July, 2011, when Congress decided it could not decide on a budget and the Republicans did not want to approve the government's authority to borrow more money to cover federal programs.
The compromise was to kick the deficit issue down the road, till after the presidential election. So the Congress, treating itself like a child, set up a set of onerous financial consequences that will take effect if it doesn't figure out some other plan by midnight on the 31 of this month. These include deep cuts in unemployment benefits and defense spending, and the elimination of payroll and income tax cuts, some dating back to President George W. Bush.
It's like the classic Cold War satire "Dr. Strangelove," in which the Soviets reveal they have constructed a doomsday device that will blow up the entire planet in the event the United States attacks Russia.
Though it's not quite an extinction level event, the FC is not going to be shopping as usual either.
Everyone's going to feel the effects if we careen off the edge. The United States will slip back into a recession, according to many economists. That's particularly dark, given that the economists say the U.S. recession ended three years ago, but most Americans are still struggling to survive. And if America's economy turns upside down, the ripple effect will trigger a global economic tailspin.
But you probably won't be surprised to learn that the doomsday measures in the fiscal cliff will fall hardest upon the middle class and the poor. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, wealthy people will pay the most in additional taxes, but their tax increase will average 20.3%. Single persons, students, and retirees will see their taxes go up by 55.2%, 37.9% and 42.4%, respectively.
It's hard to fathom that we are even debating severe cuts in government spending at this point, with 12.3 million Americans unemployed and the economy far from recovered.
It's just common sense: if your family runs into financial trouble, and your expenses are greater than your income, what do you do? Sure, you cut out the unnecessary expenditures. But then you borrow money to pay the important bills: food, the mortgage, health care. Stop paying those bills and you are dead, figuratively if not literally. Borrowing money can be dangerous, but it's what keeps you afloat so you can survive - and repay the debt later.
Borrowing is standard practice in the business world: think of all those Silicon Valley start-ups like Apple, Google and Twitter that need capital infusions to get off the ground and keep growing. What kept the U.S. banks and credit card companies alive after the house of cards they constructed collapsed in 2008? Money they borrowed from the federal government - us. The trillion dollar taxpayer bailout was essential, according to their friends in high places, because bankruptcy would have been more devastating to the economy.
So what's wrong with the government offering the rest of us more assistance?
Government deficit spending is most needed when times are tough and people need extra support - like unemployment benefits. Or jobs funded by the government because the private sector is too weak to hire. Think of it as your Uncle Sam taking care of a family member in need. If he's got the cash - or can borrow it - that's the right thing to do. He can deal with the debt later - when the family member recovers and can pay him back.
Barring Uncle Sam from providing aid and comfort to Americans in distress sits well with those who don't need the government (at least for benefits) because they have enough money to ride out the storm on their own - like those captains of Wall Street who are earning record executive salaries once again. But check out what's happened in Europe, where "deficit hawks" have imposed their will on nations trying to work their way out of the economic calamity triggered by Wall Street's implosion in 2008. Drastic cuts in government spending have devastated the economies of Greece, Spain, Italy and France, creating despair and rage among their citizens.
The drama of the fiscal cliff feeds our fascination with disaster. There's a strong undercurrent in the American spirit that yearns for change - even radical change - as much as fears it. The closer we get to the edge, the more exciting it is. Angelenos were mesmerized by scenes of sections of their city sliding into the Pacific in the apocalyptic movie "2012." We're not there yet, but decisions we make or evade now will have grave consequences. America is not too big to fail: just ask the Mayans, who disappeared a millennium ago. Thanks to the election, U.S. politics are as polarized as ever, and no one in Washington seems able to exert the political gravity needed to order the planets into alignment.