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.

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Exclusive: Labour MEPs call for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as leader

Letter demands Corbyn's departure and attacks his office for "promoting" the work of the Leave campaign. 

Labour's MEPs have called for Jeremy Corbyn to resign in the latest challenge to his leadership. In a letter sent to Corbyn and leaked to the New Statesman, Glenis Willmott, the chair of the European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP), wrote: "We find it hard to see how any Labour leader can continue in that role if they do not have the support of their MPs." Corbyn yesterday lost a no confidence vote among the Parliamentary Labour Party by 176 to 40. The letter also attacked the leader's office for an "official Labour briefing document" which "promoted the work of Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart for the Leave campaign."

The demand for Corbyn's resignation is described by sources as the "majority position" of Labour's 20 MEPs. Their stance could prove crucial if the leader is not automatically included in any new contest (a matter of legal dispute) and is required to seek 50 nominations from MP/MEPs (20 per cent of the total). 

The letter reads: 

"The European Parliamentary Labour Party met today for its first meeting since the referendum and concluded that we should send you this letter today.

"The EPLP has always striven to have a loyal and constructive relationship with our party leader, and we have worked hard to cooperate with you over recent months. However, we have very serious concerns in the light of Labour's defeat in the referendum campaign.

"Responsiblity for the UK leaving the EU lies with David Cameron. That being said, we were simply astounded that on Friday morning, as news of the result sank in, an official Labour briefing document promoted the work of Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart for the Leave campaign.

"Labour's loyal and dedicated teams of activists had just spent weeks on the doorstep and on street-stalls making the case to remain in the EU and countering leave campaign arguments. Yet you and your office authorised a briefing that put the whole Labour campaign on a par with two Labour politicians who had been appearing for weeks alongside right-wing politicians, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

"Separate from the referendum issue, it has become clear in recent days that you do not have the confidence of the Parliamentary Labour Party. We find it hard to see how many Labour leader can continue in that role if they do not have the support of their MPs.

"So it it with a heavy heart that we urge you, for the sake of the Labour Party and for the people in our country who need a Labour government, to reconsider your position as Labour leader."

Yours sincerely,

Glenis Wilmott MEP

On behalf of the European Parliamentary Labour Party 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.