Looking back from this point, the last year seems to have been filled with misery and grief: the Newtown mass shooting that killed 20 children, Superstorm Sandy and the devastation she brought, the Aurora theater shooting.
Locally, there have teen suicides that touched several communities. Longtime businesses have shut their doors or announced their closings. Many in red Northwest Jersey probably viewed the re-election of President Barack Obama as bad news, as well.
So perhaps it is appropriate that the nation spends the last hours of 2012 teetering on the edge of the so-called "fiscal cliff."
Part of what led us to the cliff was well-intentioned: A bill designed to reduce the federal deficit. The other main problem was beneficial to taxpayers, but also contributed to the massive debt that led to the deficit-reduction bill: The Bush-era tax cuts.
President Bill Clinton was the first in two decades to balance the federal budget, and the first to leave office with a smaller cumulative debt than when he took office. President George W. Bush followed with some $1.7 trillion in tax cuts, and government again operated with a deficit. The debt ballooned and today equals more than $16 trillion. That’s unquestionably problematic.
Last year, the U.S. maxed out its credit cards, so to speak. In order to solve the debt ceiling crisis, Congress passed and Obama signed a bill providing for certain automatic spending cuts.
So the perfect storm is converging: About $110 billion in automatic budget cuts at the same time as the Bush tax cuts expire, costing Americans more than $500 billion.
The cuts would come in a number of programs, most of which would not affect the average person—although some 2 million would lose unemployment benefits. But virtually everyone would have to pay more in taxes.
According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center:
If you’re married with two children under age 18 and have about $147,000 in income, you’ll pay $7,323 more in taxes.
If you’re single, earning about $47,000, you’ll pay $1,310 more.
A senior couple with about $53,000 in income would pay $690 more.
And if you’re lucky enough to be among the very wealthiest, married couple without children and some $1.7 million in income, you’ll pay almost $100,000 more.
Everyone loses. And in more ways than one.
Experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, predict that hurtling over the cliff will plunge the nation into another recession and put even more people out of work.
Given all that could possibly go wrong, why is it that—at least as of mid-day Sunday—Congress has refused to compromise with the president over a solution?
The answer came from my teenage sons, who noted this same problem that has plagued our democracy throughout history: The two-party system.
Our founding fathers wrote a Constitution and set up a government with checks and balances designed to give the people a say in government and keep too much power out of any one person or one office or one house.
But they didn’t—couldn’t—guard against any one party trying to get a power advantage. They didn’t—couldn’t—envision the childish lengths to which each party would go to try to get its way, to get an advantage, to look better than the other.
A viable third party could only help to get the Democrats and Republicans to compromise not only on these issues of taxes and spending, but also on health care, gun control and others.
Whether we tumble off the fiscal cliff crisis or screech to a halt at the edge, divided government will continue to cause problems in how the nation functions. Consider that the U.S. is expected to be bumping up against the new debt ceiling again as early as February. America needs a mediator. The nation is overdue for another party to take on that role and really represent the interests of the people.
As a footnote, this is my last column for Patch. I have enjoyed writing it and hope I have helped frame informed discussion and debate over the last 22 months.