The fiscal cliff isn't scary to anyone but Republicans

Taxmageddon could be a blessing in disguise.

Now that Barack Obama has won re-election, the focus in the US has turned to the next crisis brewing: the fiscal cliff. The event was named by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, and although I have always preferred "taxmageddon", it's stuck.

The "cliff" is the automatic introduction of roughly $600bn of tax increases and spending cuts, and is due to hit in early 2013, and the nature of what it involves has led some, like Annie Lowrey, the New York Times' economics reporter, to argue that a more apposite name might be the "austerity cliff". In fact, if it hit, the fiscal cliff would be one of the most severe austerity policies the world had ever seen. This chart, from Quartz's David Yanofsky, lays it out in comparison to other notable contractions:

But while the cliff is indeed dangerous if the country were allowed to jump off it without a safety net, the political danger it poses for Barack Obama has been overstated.

The policy has been compared to the debt ceiling debacle of last summer, and the similarities are clear. The executive may well end up facing a similar level of obstructionism from a Republican congress determined to use the crisis to their political advantage, and the hard-and-fast deadline of the negotiations – a rarity in politics as normal – lends the whole thing an extra edge.

But the difference between the two comes from the results of letting that deadline lapse – and it's there where the cliff could be a blessing in disguise for Obama.

The debt ceiling involved the Republican party turning what should have been a routine vote to raise the amount of debt that the US can hold (the ceiling has been raised roughly once a year since it was introduced) into a chance to gain huge concessions on the level of spending the government was planning. The game was entirely played out on a political stage, with each side trying to convince the other that if the deadline hit and a full government shut-down ensued, their opponents would take the blame in the eyes of the public.

The negotiations themselves were relatively the simple: the Democrats wanted to change nothing, the Republicans wanted to change something, and the argument was about where those two extremes should fall.

The debates around the fiscal cliff are different, though. Each side wants some, but not all, of the programs which are expiring to be extended. So while the Democrats want to let the Bush tax cuts expire for the richest Americans, the Republicans call for, in the words of Slate's Matt Yglesias:

Draconian reductions in the federal government's commitment to financing health care for the disabled, the elderly, and the poor.

So far, so much like the debt ceiling. The difference comes after the deadline passes.

Currently, the Obama administration is, in effect, arguing for tax rises, while the Republican party argues for spending cuts. But if the deadline passes, what happens is that massive tax rises and spending cuts kick in – far bigger than both parties desire. If that happens, the negotiating calculus changes: from that point, both parties agree on the need for tax cuts and spending increases, and just disagree on the magnitude of it.

The Democrats are then put in a position where they can offer the Republicans targeted tax cuts – re-instating the payroll tax, and the Bush tax cuts for those earning under $250,000 – and even though the Republicans would prefer more, they'll be inclined to take it because it's a preferred alternative.

Similarly, so long as the spending increases the democrats offer are preferred to keeping the across-the-board cuts of the fiscal cliff, the Republican party is likely to take them.

It all comes down to who has the power to set the agenda – and in this situation, that seems likely to be president Obama.

If the players were truly rational actors, of course, all of this would mean that the fiscal cliff wouldn't even need to hit; the Democrats ought to be able to explain this endgame, and the Republicans accept it. That seems unlikely to happen.

The fiscal cliff could actually be a blessing in disguise for Obama. By putting him and the Republicans on the same side of the status quo, he could succeed in opening his second term facing the most obstructionist congress in history with a grand bargain that creates a more liberal America.

Or the Republicans may just throw the baby out with the bathwater and hurt their interests, and America's, to score points against the president. Again.

Cliffs of the non-fiscal variety. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.