Would Lincoln Push Us Over the Cliff?

Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow: the shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”  Now, even in Lincoln’s day the art of politics demanded a steely mental toughness and shrewd negotiating skills.  Lincoln was among, if not the, very best of his day on the national stage in being political.  Daniel Day Lewis gives  yet another phenomenal screen performance in the new movie, Lincoln, in which those skills are brilliantly portrayed.  Go see it.

I do believe, however, our late president would blush with despondency and embarrassment were he to visit Washington today and be witness to the amount of time, energy and resources that are being committed to casting shadows that disappear with each day’s setting sun rather than planting and nurturing trees that will grow and bear fruit for future generations, as his efforts most certainly did.

The art of negotiating has not only been lost, or rather abandoned, in Washington, it has been replaced by the art – if you can call it an art – of manipulating perceptions.  Perceptions (the shadows) are the handiwork of modern media.  And the manifestation of that handiwork now posses the gravest threat yet to our nation’s economy because it is becoming more of a serious threat than I thought possible in being a very real obstacle to finding compromise on how to avoid the Fiscal Cliff.

Real ideas – ones that somebody actually believes in – cannot be brought forth, challenged, discussed and hotly debated when those individuals supposed to be doing the debating are running around chasing shadows like Peter Pan (there is much more you can do with that analogy without a whole lot of imagination).  Over the past few weeks we have watched this play out in the ridiculously lame posturing of elected leaders supposed to be engaged in serious discourse over how to solve this nation’s debt crisis.

Instead, they spend their time and efforts not bringing forth and positioning new ideas – but seeking to deceitfully position the public perception of those with opposing viewpoints (i.e., as in the party opposite).  To hell with ideas.  Who has time for ideas with a 24-hour news cycle and an audience that has a few thousand competing electronic choices for their attention and demanding to be entertained? So we – the audience – have culpability in the charade that plays out every evening on Fox News and MSNBC.

Today we are living in a generation that, on the whole, has benefitted from such largesse that it demands to be entertained – because it has time to be entertained. We seek out and reward through our patronage Soap Opera Journalism.  Controversy and conflict push ratings.  That’s entertaining.  Politicians and elected officials understand the game of visibility – and how costly an advantage that can be to buy.  Want to build visibility in the media without spending more than you can afford? Then you have to be entertaining.

Perhaps the bitterest – if not most distasteful, in my opinion – manifestation of this phenomenon is Reality TV.  Have you ever met anyone in real life who shares with you their most personal thoughts and insights about what is happening in their life while appearing to be talking to the invisible person next to you? That’s not reality.  That’s just content being produced under the guise of reality for the purpose of entertainment.  And, sadly, the same thing can be said about much of today’s news programming.

I wonder what an interview with President Lincoln would like on Fox News or MSNBC.  I wonder if he could possibly fathom what the strategic purpose was of the rhetoric that pours forth every day from what would be considered his antecedent contemporaries in Washington.  I have a feeling he would invoke another of his famous sayings: “I am a firm believer in the people.  If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.  The great point is to bring them the real facts.”

Well, good luck with that, Mr. President.  The problem isn’t with finding and reporting facts.  It’s with understanding what the term, “real” means today and how that is impacting the way those facts get presented.


WARNING: Fiscal Cliff Ahead

The topic of a fiscal cliff may be only indirectly related to Healthcare Reform – but that is sort of like saying Hurricane Sandy only indirectly impacted the entire Northeastern United States because it only directly hit the coast of New Jersey (and I make that observation having lost a 40-foot pine tree to Sandy – and I live in Northeast Ohio).

Metaphorically and practically, the fiscal cliff represents a whole lot more than just a short path to economic collapse of the U.S. economy – as if that prospect would need a heightened sense of awareness and urgency.  Want to up the ante further? How about if the U.S. economy collapses, then very likely so too does the rest of the world’s economies: global recession.  Got your attention now?

What is the Fiscal Cliff?
The fiscal cliff is a term used to describe the anticipated financial/budget situation beginning next month resulting from mandated tax increases and spending cuts.  The Bush tax cuts will expire on December 31st of this year, as will the Social Security payroll tax holiday.  At the same time, several tax policies that have historically reduced individual and business tax burdens are due to expire, while several new tax provisions of the Affordable Care Act will take effect in January 2013.

On the spending side, the Budget Control Act of 2011 requires automatic spending cuts to begin on January 2nd (the sequester cuts that you have probably read about); extended unemployment benefits are due to expire at year’s end; and – somewhat less than indirectly related to Healthcare Reform – rates at which Medicare pays physicians will decrease by nearly 30% on December 31st.

What Does it Mean?
In total, the Congressional Budget Office forecasts the impact of the fiscal cliff to be a net reduction of $607B to the federal deficit in FY 2013.  Reducing the deficit is generally perceived as a good thing, right?  “Not so fast, my friend,” as Lee Corso says on College Gameday.   Most economists share a grave concern that the sudden onset of these austerity measures would send the U.S. economy into a double-dip recession. 

But most economists and financial analysts also agree that simply legislating additional delays to these measures – the proverbial kicking the can down the road again – is not going to be in the best long-term interests of the economy and will only serve to increase the stakes and consequences of an eventual fiscal collapse.  And, as we know, those charged with addressing this conundrum – elected officials, particularly in the House – tend to be long-term thinkers for only a very short period of time following an election.   And thus the stage is set.

The Election Mandate: COMPROMISE
Within a very short span of time we will learn what the next two years are going to look like in Washington. With both political parties claiming an election mandate that was clearly given to neither let’s see how long the rhetorical posturing and positioning in the media will last – and whether both parties have finally come to realize that the only mandate they were given was to stop sparring like children vying for parental attention and accomplish something meaningful!

There have been early signs of a willingness to compromise.  Republican party strategists that want to seize the new leadership void left in the wake Tuesday’s election will look to distance themselves from Grover Norquist and the Tea Party.  They appear to be willing to trade tax increases for spending cuts (as in, compromise – the way things used to get done in Congress).

In maintaining a Republican stronghold of the House, I believe voters have signaled to Democrats that fiscal conservatism is a pervading belief of the electorate.  Most political observers I think agree that entitlement spending has to be at the center of any meaningful discussion on debt reduction.  And not just at the periphery based upon an assessment of how to minimize constituency impact.  Democrats are going to have to agree to spending cuts that won’t guarantee them automatic reelection.

How this plays out over the next month leading into the holiday recess will have tremendous ramifications in setting the tone and demeanor of the 113th Congress.  And that, in turn, will have tremendous ramifications on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  See – took me a while, but I brought it back home.