Improving the Fiscal Cliff Conversation

The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 2, 2013, on the day after a compromise bill passed the US Congress, avoiding the
The US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 2, 2013, on the day after a compromise bill passed the US Congress, avoiding the 'fiscal cliff.' The agreement raises taxes on the rich and puts off automatic $109 billion federal budget cuts for two months. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

As 2012 ends and 2013 starts, the fiscal cliff continues to dominate the headlines. But rather than an informed debate on the country's fiscal and political crisis, much of the conversation has focused on the superficial. Politicians blame each other, rather than focusing on solutions. Starbucks tells their DC employees to write "Come Together" on cups (which is a little like declaring that the best way to settle a hard fought football game is for both teams to declare a tie). The media sensationalizes the crisis, with Wolf Blitzer declaring, on December 31st, that "Practically, this may have no meaning, but we're going over the fiscal cliff!" And the average American citizen is not engaging in the debate.

Over the next two months, this crisis will only continue, as Congress deals with both the looming debt ceiling and the impending sequestration deadline. To ensure a meaningful resolution, it is incumbent on all of us to engage in a citizen education campaign on our fiscal crisis- its causes, its nuances, and its potential solutions. This campaign must start with our citizens, include our media and end with our politicians. Political drama might make for good TV, but a real conversation is necessary for the future of the fiscal health of the country.

From the beginning, the conversation on the fiscal cliff has been too elementary. At its very basic, the fiscal cliff debate was about tax rates and deficit reduction measures (revenue and spending). Problematically, the American public viewed the crisis through only these two lenses. Democrats hammered home the point that taxes had to go up on the wealthiest earners. Republicans hammered home the point that the country had to cut spending to reduce the deficit.

In fact, the majority of the nuances of the deal went unreported. While most of the public debate focused on income tax rates, the actual negotiations included conversations on issues ranging from the estate tax to simplifying the overall tax code to limiting overall payroll deductions. And there's the matter of the sequestration, which was rarely discussed. Heavy and important stuff. But when the public debate only focused on the meat, in terms of income tax rates and spending cuts, the overall substance was minimized.

In the days after the compromise, politicians have been forced to bear the brunt of blame for spotty, last minute and inadequate negotiations. Most of this is deserved: Congress (mostly House Republicans) refused to negotiate, resulting in a deal that will only extend the crisis. But in order to fully deal with our fiscal crisis, we need to have a more comprehensive conversation that extends beyond the beltway.

This starts with our citizens. It's always easiest to blame our politicians, but the reality is that the majority of citizens did not engage in the conversation beyond the simplistic dialogue of tax hikes versus spending cuts. Indeed, a Pew Research poll released in mid-December found that a full 43% of Americans had no idea what the fiscal cliff referred to (let along understanding the nuances that came with it). This fiscal crisis affects all Americans in a real way. We need to make a real effort to understand the complexities of the crisis, rather than just leaving it up to our politicians.

The media must also step up. It seems that the media has now resigned itself to two fundamental ways of covering the news: 1) from a completely partisan perspective (i.e., MSNBC or Fox News), or 2) from a completely sensationalist perspective (see Wolf Blitzer's comment on CNN). This is obviously a perennial problem, and I'm not the first person to complain about it. In the case of these negotiations, however, it would be nice if the media spent a little more time focusing on the nuance and policy, and a little less time focusing on either blaming the other side or trying to dramatize a serious political situation.

And finally, politicians need to step up and engage the public in a citizen education campaign. The chaotic nature of the congressional debate meant that political leaders did not have conversations with the American people about the real issues at hand. President Obama could hold his own version of fireside chats to educate the American people on complicated policy. Obama and Speaker Boehner could travel the country together to debate fiscal policy. While this sounds insane in our current debate, former President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich actually did a version of this- participating in a policy dialogue in New Hampshire in 1995. Congressional representatives could hold substantive town hall meetings with constituents.

There are no easy answers to the fiscal crisis. But the first step towards a real solution is a real conversation. The next two months will show whether our politicians, our media and most importantly, our citizens, are capable of that.

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