‘Fiscal cliff’ poses dilemma

The “fiscal cliff” is (a) the nation’s route to financial ruin or (b) possibly the one mechanism to get the federal government’s spending practices into line.

Take your pick.

How does one learn more about the fiscal cliff, at which point the feds arrive on Dec. 31, 2012, absent a budget deal that overrides the mandated budget cuts? Here’s an idea: Watch the PBS Newshour.

I happen to be a big fan of the NewsHour, going back to when it was the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour — co-hosted by veteran journalists Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. It had a kind of Huntley-Brinkley feel to it when the men would say “Good night, ‘Robin’; good night, Jim” to end the broadcast.

But their tradition of factual reporting has carried on since MacNeil’s retirement, when Lehrer became the sole host and since Lehrer’s semi-retirement in the past year.

The PBS NewsHour has been spending a lot of time covering the fiscal cliff, especially since the 2012 presidential election, which concluded Nov. 6 with President Obama’s re-election.

Here’s what at stake: If Congress doesn’t come up with a deficit- and debt-reduction plan by the last day of the year, automatic budget cuts kick in. The government will be forced to reduce the budget by 10 percent across the board. Every single federal agency will face the same level of cuts. National Endowment for the Arts, National Institute of Health, the Department of Agriculture, the State Department, you name it. They’ll get cut.

Have I mentioned the Defense Department? No, but defense gets whacked too — if the White House and Congress can’t agree on a deficit-reduction plan.

And let’s not forget that the fiscal cliff would allow the so-called “Bush tax cuts” to expire, meaning that everyone’s taxes will increase at the first of the year.

The dispute centers, naturally, on whether to include tax revenue in a new budget plan. Obama wants to keep the Bush-era tax cuts for every American who earns less than $250,000 annually; those who earn more than that will see a tax increase. Congressional Republicans want to keep the tax cuts for wealthiest Americans.

Therein, we have the stalemate.

The PBS NewsHour — which you can watch online at pbs.org/newshour — this week broadcast a thorough examination of the history of government debt. Economics correspondent Paul Salomon interviewed Simon Johnson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, who walked viewers through the complex history of the debt — which today totals more than $16 trillion, and is climbing by the second. As is always the case with NewsHour analyses, the broadcast looked at all sides (not just two of them) of the complex issue.

The chatter in Washington is that — given the election result — a deal is more likely than stalemate. Both sides agree that voters sent a message: They want something done. They differ on what they believe voters prefer. Therefore, the thought goes, plunging the nation over the fiscal cliff isn’t an option, given that many economists predict a serious recession in 2013 if policymakers fail to reach agreement on a budget deal.

Stay tuned to the NewsHour. We’re all likely to learn something.

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