They're dashing through the corridors of power in Washington with appropriately grim expressions this week. Congressional leaders are talking about the upcoming 'fiscal cliff,' which journalists are dutifully describing as a "looming crisis."
But nothing's "looming." Nothing. There's just some language in a law Congress passed last year. If they don't want it to happen they can un-pass that law. It's a simple as that.
And do you want to know something? They don't want it to happen.
This phony crisis is a lot like this scene in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, where Cleavon Little as The Sheriff pretends to take himself hostage to escape an angry crowd. You may remember the gag line, which included a word we won't use: "Nobody move or the $^((*&^(* gets it."
Brooks crafts his throwaway lines pretty carefully, too. Look for the earnest man who says "I think he means it," or the woman in the crowd who says "Won't somebody help that poor man?"
Here's how the "fiscal cliff" scam's being played: Congressional Republicans are holding the guns to their own heads. Democrats are the town leaders, dutifully laying their weapons down.
And the American media are the gullible townfolk, carefully writing in their notebooks about the "looming" threat to their sheriff.
Viewers of MSNBC know that progressives like Chris Hayes and Lawrence O'Donnell are dutifully trying to remove the word "cliff" from the nomenclature, since the effects of this law would be gradual -- more like a "slope," as they said the other night. They're right about the "slope" part.
But it's a tactical mistake to even engage in this kind of discussion, because there's really no "slope" either. There's just a law.
John Boehner's law.
Sure, the President agreed to that law as part of a deal to settle deficit talks last year. At the time the Republicans were about to shut down the entire government. The GOP forced this law into existence.
That means the "fiscal cliff" is theirs. They own it.
Anyone who opposes disastrous, European-style austerity measures needs to stop talking about this in urgent terms. And nobody should characterize it as anything but what it really is: A deed performed by Republicans in Congress, which the same Congress can easily reverse.
That's not just more accurate. It also places the responsibility for this pseudo-crisis exactly where it belongs.
A Gun to the Head
The motives for the hoax are easy to understand. As a Campaign for America's Future/Democracy Corps poll reaffirmed after the election, the public overwhelmingly opposes any of the fiscal measures being negotiated as the result of this fictitious "crisis." A majority of voters, cutting across party lines, opposes virtually all of the ideas being discussed -- including cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, and reductions in anti-poverty programs.
Voters strongly support some steps that aren't being debated because of this phony "crisis," like increased investment in jobs and economic growth. These negotiations are likely have the opposite effect instead, leading to more cuts in these programs. In fact, of the many "debt deal" provisions being debated today, only tax increases for the wealthiest Americans have the majority's approval.
No wonder Congressional Republicans are holding a gun to their own heads.
Unfortunately it's pointed at our heads too. If Republicans get their way the entire country will be hit with austerity cuts that increase the poverty rates, hurt most people's standard of living, and create even more unemployment.
This phony crisis is the GOP's way of saying "Nobody move or the country gets it." And if the public doesn't make its voice heard, it will.
Here's more proof that both the "fiscal cliff" and the "emergency" deficit talks surrounding it are a fraud: They include two issues that don't belong in a deficit discussion at all. One's Social Security, which is forbidden by law from contributing to the national deficit.
The other is the scam known as tax "reform" and "tax code simplification" -- which, in plain English, means a lowering of top tax rates for millionaires and billionaires -- supposedly in return for reduced "tax expenditures" and increased "tax revenues" to be named at a later date.
Why would deficit talks include two ideas that won't reduce the national debt, especially when "tax simplification" will undoubtedly increase that debt substantially? That's an easy one: Because this phony "crisis" has nothing to do with deficits.
It's all part of a long-range plan to scam the public into transferring even more of its wealth to the wealthiest among us: first by giving them lower tax rates, and then by cutting a program the public has already paid into. That way there'll be less pressure to increases taxes on the wealthy later on. (They may also want to raid Social Security's trust fund to pay for the deficits caused by their tax breaks.)
These "deficit" moves would transfer even more of our national treasure to the extremely rich -- including those on Wall Street who created our economic crisis in the first place. That, and not a "fiscal cliff," is what's "looming."
The Phony-Crisis Industry
In the past the President has sometimes seemed willing, even eager, to press for a larger "Grand Bargain." He's taking a tougher line today, especially about taxes on the wealthy, and should be applauded for that. He should also be urged to take an equally strong position on Medicare and Social Security, which he hasn't done yet.
Everyone involved needs to understand that, thanks to some new fiscal and electoral math, the anti-austerity team is holding the winning hand now.
It's true that a tougher Presidential stand would disappoint some people, especially the highly-paid professional "deficit hawks" from both parties. That includes people like former Clinton White House functionary Erskine Bowles, who ghoulishly described this artificial crisis as a "magic moment" to impose austerity measures on the American people.
Bowles is a director of bailed-out investment bank Morgan Stanley. That means that, unlike most Americans, he would do very well under the lower tax rates proposed in these "deficit" discussions.
A repudiation of this pseudo-crisis would also embarrass professional scaremongers like Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who warned of "big financial market repercussions" if the nation goes over the "cliff." But we haven't seen any repercussions before.
The word for talk like that is "nonsense." (Well, that's one word for it.) Nobody's going over any "cliff," least of all the Republicans.
Let's be clear: It would be a bad thing if the provisions in this bill took effect for any length of time. But it's time to call Boehner's bluff. Good Democrats can't let themselves be railroaded into austerity by this phony crisis, while the other kind -- the Erskine Bowles Democrats -- shouldn't be allowed to use it as cover.
Boehner knows he's in a weak position, which is why Republicans have quietly been looking for ways to delay the "cliff." Democrats should take note of that and recognize the motives behind it.
The President should go on television and say to Congress: If you won't accept the will of the people, undo your reckless law. Democrats on the Hill should insist on up-or-down votes for provisions that the public wants. This charade won't stop until the GOP's bluff is called.
Boehner insists that Congressional Republicans, along with everybody else, are standing on a "cliff." It's time somebody dared them to jump.