Brad Hirschfield Live: On the fiscal cliff, does either side really want a deal?

Dec 05, 2012

President Obama said Tuesday that the GOP "fiscal cliff" offer was "out of balance."

The president said there is still a chance that the White House and Congress can reach a deal avoid the "fiscal cliff." Does it count as a deal if one insists that it must be fully on ones' own terms?

What has happened to compromise, and why has it become a dirty word?

Brad Hirschfield will live chat with readers at 1 p.m. ET about this topic.

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Will we go over the so-called fiscal cliff?  Does either side really want to make a deal on anything other than it's own terms?  Is that even a "deal"?


Could it be that this is all simply the necessary build up to the deal?  Is this simply the nature of politics, or is something "off the rails" here? 


Has ideology, on one or both sides, pushed a sane approach to public policy off the table, and if so, how do we get it back on?  Perhaps we can do better than our elected officials....


Let's get started!

It seems that politics is being increasingly driven by fear. Not the fearmongering in the endless campaigns, but fear from the politicians themselves on both sides of the aisle. They view it as a zero sum game in which any success by an opponent is by definition a loss to themselves. Thus they fear giving their opponents anything that might resemble a victory, even at the cost of their own potential gains. But fear isn't an ideology and, I believe, if these people actually sat down and compromised they might learn there was enough credit to go around after all.

You must be crazy!  A non-zero-sum approach to politcs?  Remain animated by what your party can accomplish, not how much pain you can inflict on the "other" side?  Do politics as if we are one nation with competing approaches regarding how to achieve what is best for all, not just good guys and bad guys endlessly banging away at each other?  That's just crazy, right?


Clearly, you are not crazy at all, but a wise and hopeful individual, whose words remind us not only of what is wrong with so much of contemporary politics, but of how we might do better.  Thank you for both your wisdom and and your hopefulness.


Practically speaking, the one thing all of us can do, is reward those politicians who function as you and I would hope they would, and punish those who do not.  Let elected officials know that whether we are in full agreement with the final deal or not, we, the electorate will support those who worked hardest to make a deal, and will withdraw support from those who "fiddled while our economy burned".


When we shift our politcal culture from one of pledges and postualtes, to one of deal-making and relationship building, we will all be better off. 

The outline of the cliff budget triggers is reasonably in line with what I would like to see in a final deal. Tax increases for both payroll deductions and expiration of the Bush cuts. Spending cuts balanced between defense and domestic programs. This cliff sounds a LOT better than the status quo of perpetual debt ceiling increases.

There are certainly some -- though not many - who agree with you.  But regardless of the economic theories and presumptions which guide one's thinking about whatever should happen and the expected results thereof, you can't possibly think that the endless posturing  and ideological rigidity which we are seeing, are good for us as a nation, or could you?


There is a tiny piece of me which can imagine that this really is all theater and that such theater is a part of the politcal game.  But it's a pretty mabre form of theater, if that is what it is, and it certainly sends the message that politicians on both sides and including the President, are willing to sacrifice the average American in the name of their own politcal well-being.  It's hard not to be disappointed in THAT.

The fiscal cliff is a problem that's been at least a half-century in the making. Except when the stock market boom increased capital gains tax receipts in the 90s, the federal government has never seriously tried to pay off debt, even when possible. It was just too easy to affect compromise by directing spending to current voters while taxing future ones. The saying has been variously attributed that "Democracies perish when the population realizes they can vote themselves money." The retirement of the Baby Boom generation is going to put that to the ultimate test.

You ar cetainly correct about the fact that it's always easier to "kick the can down the road" than to deal with the trash today.  In fact, we all do it in various ways in our own lives to varying degrees, so one could argue that our politicians should be no different.  Except that they should be different, at least when it comes to the public.  They are PUBLIC officials after all!  If they want to eat an extra dessert today on the promise of doing more excercise tomorrow, that's fine, but taking that approach with our entire nation is not fine.

The Bush tax cuts initiated in 2001 and 2003 were designed to stimulate the economy and prevent a recession. Maybe they helped, maybe they didn't, nevertheless, the recession occurred. 11 years later, these temporary tax cuts have yet to expire. Don't folks remember their history? It wasn't that long ago that the highest marginal rates topped 50%-60%-70%... Why do so many people treat the Bush tax breaks like a birthright?

Why?  Because we humans are natural adjusters and we tend to assume that what we are used to now, is how things are supposed to be, and often even pretend that it is how they always were! 


In many regards, our ability to make the present fit with our memories of the past and our expectations of teh future, is actually a really good thing -- but now always.  Sometimes we need to admit that things have been different in the past, can change in teh future, and that we will still be able to move forward without losing our way.


Of course, to do that, politicians on both sides would have to stop recalling the past, and forcasting the future, in ways that always confirm that which they themselves already believe.  They would have to admit that both the past and the future are not as clear as they often tell us they were, that those with whom they disagree are also necessary, and that however we go forward, it always works best when the greatest range of opinions and possibilities are relfected in whatever policy is ultimately decided upon.

I pay about as much in taxes as Mitt Romney except my income is about 10x what his his. Our president wants to raise the tax rate on folks like me and those making more than $200K. The Republicans are screaming. It would ne nice if noth sides dropped the rhetoric and politcal speak. Both sides know folks like me wont pay any more in taxes. I pay folks to make sure I dont and since June ahve been adjusting my portfolio etc so I dont. Only folks who are going to pay more is the poor schoos making $200k to about $5million. They dont ahve the time or money to hire the best tax advisers etc. So folks like me, Warren Buffett and Jimmy Buffett arent going tpay any more in taxes. Please stop telling tales on both sides. Only way to make me pay more is go with a flat tax and VAT tax. My tax advisers would like to thank both sides for a great holdiay season. And someone please give Grover Nordquist(sic) a swirlee he is a tool of Wall street etc. Obama's super rich friends like Buffett and Jay Z can all pay more Federal income taxes all the have to do is sne dthe US Treasury a check. Still waitinf for Bruce Springsteen to ante up? What about you Warren?

You have perfectly identified the "conspiracy" on both sides of the aisle -- a "conspiracy" which exploits the fears and angers of each side's base, for political gain, rather than actually addressing the real issues.


For example, almost all economists agree that more revenue will need to come from wealthier Americans, in order to get our financial house in order.  Those same economists also agree that raising the marginal tax rates on those making 250k per year will make almost no real difference in achieveing that goal.  The people who make really huge money, much of which does not get spent in ways that strenghten the economy, will still pay the 14-16% they pay on money made in various financial deals. 


The 250k was determined by those who figured out that that was the number at which a so-called "fairness" argument could be invoked to political advantage.  That's a pretty poor way to make a decision, and one which is as cynacle and threatening to punish politicians who refuse to take pledges to never raise another tax dollar.

For all the talk, the ability to leave the debt ceiling in the Presidents hands would be something that the GOP would want to prevent, no? I would assume they have to cave in at sometime doing nothing costs them so much.

Your use of teh word "cave" is very significant, and I think reflects why we are in this bind of having to solve a long-term issue in a last-minute way.


If Republicans, or Democrats for that matter, continue to confuse making pragmatic deals with "caving", then they will not make the deals and we will all suffer for it.  The fact that principled pragmatism has conme to be seen, on both sides of the aisle, as less than a fully committed position is pretty disturbing.  If people cannot shift their thinking and subsequent action without losing their sense of self and/or their office, they will not make the shifts we need in order to navigate through the crises we face.


There is far greater wisdom and honor in navigating to a sub-optimal port, than in being the captain who goes down with the ship because they wouldn't be caught dead in anyplace other than their originally intended destination.

Why don't you and other media take up the position that if we go "over the cliff" then we should vote out the entire group of elected officials running in 2014 - both parties.

I appreciate what you are saying, though I think that is a bit extreme.  The "throw them all out" approach simply substitutes one form of rigidity for another.  There is an alternative -- one which respects your view wihtout going quite so far.


Let officials know, as I wrote earlier, that those who make deals will be rewarded and those who do not, will not, even if we ourselves don't totally love the deal that gets made.  Let them know that paralysis in the name of a hallowed politcal or economic theory is far less desireable than is pragmatism which respects throy but demands getting something done, even more.

If the $250k tax hike will have such a small impact on the truly wealthy why are they the ones putting the pressure on the Republicans to fight it? I speaking of The Koch brothers and others like them.

For the same darn reason that the Democrats picked it -- they can exploit feeling of rage and anger by doing so, and because were we to limit our focus say, on those who made a million dollars a year, or even 500k (as Warren Bufett has suggested), they seem more distant to the masses of Republicans who fight against all tax hikes for those making 250.

Why all this angst about the impending "fiscal cliff"? If the cliff comes two good things occur. Dems get their revenues and GOP gets their spending cuts, correct?

That's like saying that we should get of the mosquitos in the back yard with a nuclear device!  It will accomplsih the intended goal, but it will also have dire consequences as well.


In fact, the cliff was designed because teh cuts were seen as so draconian and potentially damaging, that no sane people would allow that to happen.  Tragically, politicians are now betting against the American people, and presume that we will look past their disfuntionality as long as they chanpion whatever ideology we happen to like.  In many ways, if they get away with that, we should blame oursleves as much as them.

Part of the reason that compromise is hard is because the President and his party get all of the credit and or blame. For example, from the late 1990's do we remember the Republicans balancing the budget or do we remember Clinton balancing the budget? It was the Clinton surplus and the Clinton budget. There are no political benefits to compromise for either side.

If that is correct, and I am not sure that it is (think Tip O'Neal and ronald Reagan), we have only ourselves to blame for continuing to re-elect ideologues instead of public servants.


To the extent that the benefits and/or costs are political, and we agree about that being the real issue here, then it is up to the citizens who hold the keys to the politicians' next victory or loss.

With this issue, as with ALL issues, both sides are wrong. The truth is in the middle ALWAYS, on all issues. I don't even check anymore what the issue is before I tell my wife "both sides are wrong, extremist, the truth is somewhere in between." Why can't more people realize this obvious fact, that the truth is always in the middle?

I hear you, and would make one small adjustment to your process.  Listen to BOTH sides because the truth is often NOT in teh middle per se, but may be an amalgam of views from both sides.  In other words, the solution is not always to split the difference, as much as it is to learn form both sides and create a third alternative.  You may see that as a too fine distinction, but I assure you it is not.


"Extreme" positions can actually be correct, but it is rare that when one takes all of the extremes of one camp, and ignores all those of the other, that a wise response will be found.  On the other hand, discounting a position simply because it comes from either the far-raight or far-left, robs us of alternatives which may actually be needed.


As to why people find all of this so difficult, it is because we are trained from very early on to confuse purety of thought with wisdom and sophistication, stuborness with loyalty, and adaptation with weakness.  The last is particulalry ironic given that we are only here because our ability to adapt.

When Cantor & Boehner threatened to destroy the country last year by withholding the debt ceiling increase, I finally realized that these guys were not in these negotiations as for what was good for the country, they were in these negotiations as Republicans only.

That's an overstatement, I think, but it's hard not to at least sympathise with your words.  On the other hand, to the extent that you don't see that same trend among people like Speaker Pelosi, and to a lesser extent the post-election iteration of the President, you are seeing only half a picture.


Here's a suggestion for those who would like to keep us from going over the cliff:  identify where those politicians you support are being obstructionist, and demand that they make moves which bring them closer to there opponants, no matter what they ahve said in teh past or what promises they made in the last campaign.  If both sides did that, we would have a deal before Christmas.

As I watch these fiscal talks unfold, I wonder what David Broder would say about it if he were alive? If He's looking down on us from heaven, what do you think he might be thinking? That he spent his whole life praising bipartisan moderation, and now look at the mess we're in.

What a beautiful and powerful image to evoke.  David Broder indeed.  Thank you, especially from me personally, as he is one of my role models.


If it's any comfort, I think he would be not only disturbed, but sagely sanguin.  He would caution us to combine outrage about what is going on in both parties, but also remind us that we are a great nation populated with good people, and that we have every reason to believe that however bumpy the road, we will travel the road to a better place.

Well, our time is at hand and my hands are getting tired, so we need to wrap up -- for this week anyhow.  The world will keep spinning and we will be back at it next week though.  On that, you can count!


In the meantime, don't forget that we can continue this conversation when you follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield, and friend me on facebook.  I'll look for you there.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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