Monday, December 31, 2012

Deal or no deal?

Looks like we're going over the cliff, but maybe only a tiny bit over it. So no reason to panic. The Dow ended the year back above 13,000. Tune in tomorrow when we are living in a different reality, and Republicans will be able to brag that they voted to lower taxes.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

End game

Nobody should be surprised that the "fiscal cliff" negotiations are going down to the wire, and perhaps beyond it. Republicans and Democrats have been fighting tooth and nail over these budget issues for the past four years--actually much longer than that--and nobody is about to concede gracefully to the other side. Only when both sides are absolutely sure that the deal on the table is the only deal available, and that the deal is better than the unpleasant package of tax hikes and budget cuts that will take effect automatically in January, is there a possibility that both sides will accept the deal. In this situation, the deadline itself might be the only thing that will force the parties to make a deal, which means there is no reason to expect any deal to be made until we are about to hit that deadline. Except that the deadline can be extended, and except that some of the parties think their leverage will actually improve after the deadline has passed, and some of these negative consequences start taking effect.

I've seen parties in protracted lawsuits reach this point numerous times. Contested lawsuits are not usually just about the money. If that were all that the parties had at stake, they would be able to resolve the dispute fairly easily. No, if the battle is hard-fought, that is because one or both parties believes that a matter of principle is at stake, or a personal insult must be righted. It's the same with members of Congress. Republicans firmly believe that the only acceptable way of dealing with our economic troubles is to keep taxes low and keep reducing the size of government, particularly on the kinds of social programs that Republicans believe are sapping our economic strength. Democrats firmly believe that these same programs are vital to protecting millions of people from the ravages of the economic downturn, and that they will also help stimulate the economy to faster growth. They also firmly believe we need to reduce inequality and raise revenues, and can accomplish both goals by increasing the highest marginal tax rates. If this were just a matter of choosing a compromise number between say, 35 and 39, that could be easily accomplished. But any number that we end up choosing will be taken as a surrender on a matter of the most sacred principle by at least one side, and perhaps by both sides.

How can parties be induced to accept the surrender of their principles? In private conflicts, it's sometimes effective to remind people of the toll the conflict is taking on them, and to ask them to imagine being able to put the conflict behind them. Sometimes they need to realize that no matter how long they negotiate or fight, they can't improve what they view as a lousy deal. At that point, the only choice they have is between peace and continued conflict. People only reach that point at the end of a long period of negotiation, when there is no more time left to negotiate.

Politicians might have an even harder time making peace than private parties. Perpetual conflict is part of their job description. Even if they reach one budget agreement today, they will just start the next day preparing for battle over next year's budget agreement, or some other issue of even more sacred principle. And politicians have to answer to their constituents, who are even less forgiving and understanding of the need to compromise than they are. Just like parties in private disputes, the politicians are only going to arrive at the point where they might accept a deal when there is no more time left to negotiate. And even at that point, a lot of them would just as soon continue to fight. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained

The year in political/historical films ended with a bang (a lot of bangs, actually and some booms, and much blood spatter), with Quentin Tarantino's latest, Django Unchained. It's rare enough in the movies to be able to enjoy long stretches of clever dialogue, but with Tarantino there's also the bonus of slowly-building tension in each scene until some character finally explodes into extreme violence. Maybe there's nothing else going on in Tarantino's movies than that. The setting and story are just an excuse for a number of set pieces of chatter followed by spatter. Also lots of references to lots of bad movies that I'm glad Tarantino took the time to see so I don't have to. It's all style, wit and blood, and who needs any other reasons to go to the movies?

In Django Unchained, it so happens that the genre is spaghetti westerns and the story is about slavery. But it's important to remember that this is a comic book movie version of slavery; it's not a documentary. That doesn't mean that slavery wasn't as bad as is shown in the movie. It might even have been worse than is shown in the movie. We know that the beatings and the whippings and the disregard for bonds among slaves really happened. We also know that slave rebellions and examples of revenge actually happened. What I'm talking about when I say the movie is a comic book is the depiction of an exaggerated kind of super-hero who is able to, say, mow down dozens of rifle-wielding attackers armed only with a couple of pistols. (Sorry if anyone reading this thinks I just spoiled any of the movie for you, but if you don't know something like that is coming from the moment you first lay eyes on Django, then you just don't get out to the movies often enough.) Anyway, that kind of character only exists in spaghetti westerns or action thrillers. (Jamie Foxx plays this kind of character beautifully. He should do more action movies.)

Tarantino prepared us for how to appreciate his kind of historical fiction with his last movie, Inglorious Basterds (genre: buddy war movies; story: the Holocaust). We all know that World War II didn't end anything close to the way Tarantino chose to show it. But it was fun to imagine that spectacle. We should therefore expect that a Tarantino movie about the South just before the Civil War is not going to end in a historically accurate way. On the other hand, Gone with the Wind wasn't at all historically accurate either, but made a pernicious pretense of accuracy, thus encouraging audiences to believe its lies. Tarantino doesn't expect the audience to believe in his revenge fantasy, exactly, but is going after a deeper truth I think.

Which leads me to a discussion of historical revisionism. There are basically two kinds  of historical revisionism, the good kind and the bad kind. The good kind challenges the conventional wisdom about a historical event, and tries to show history in a different, truer light. Our view of Reconstruction, for example, has in the last several decades, been challenged by the good kind of historical revisionism, to the point where we are more likely to see Southern efforts to shake off Reconstruction in a negative way. The bad kind of historical revisionism are attempts to whitewash or deny the actuality of historical events. Holocaust denial, for example. Django Unchained, like Inglorious Basterds, does not fit within either category. These stories are not historical revisionism at all; they are historical fantasy.

But this style does lead to a deeper truth. And the deeper truth lies in the depictions of the endless brutality of slavery; the horror of treating people as property. And perhaps most of all, showing just how deeply ingrained racism was and still must be in American culture. The nearly universal racism depicted in this film is and should be the most shocking thing in it. The kind of easy, offhand racism we see in Django Unchained you would not expect to see disappear from American life for hundreds of years, if ever. And in fact we know it has not disappeared, though it has moved into the shadows. (Anybody who thinks that racism has disappeared from American culture should try reading some of the truly disgusting remarks spread on the internet when our president pre-empted a football game to speak at the Newtown memorial.)

One symptom of just how ingrained racism still is in American culture is the dearth of films that deal honestly with slavery. I saw an interview with Tarantino where he noted that we have a lot of Westerns, but hardly any Southerns. Why is that? Southern history should furnish just as many stories of drama and conflict as we can gather from the west. Our fear of confronting that long stretch of our history tied up with slavery--most of American history, really--can be compared to the fear of Germans honestly coming to terms with the Nazi era. What we need now are even more movies about slavery. Tarantino has not said it all by any means. But he might have shocked us to the point where we are able to look under some rocks and confront some ugly truths.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to talk about guns

M4 rifle
As the nation embarks on a debate about how to reduce gun violence, it might be a good idea to set some ground rules. First rule: it's useless to frame this issue in terms of constitutional rights. The meaning of the Second Amendment is a legal question that is determined by the Supreme Court. Arguing about the meaning of the Second Amendment is not going to get us anywhere, unless somebody's argument is going to influence the Supreme Court. Anyway, liberals just look foolish and hypocritical advocating a strict textual, originalist interpretation of the Second Amendment. They don't apply that standard when they claim that abortion and sodomy are constitutionally-protected activities. Why read another part of the Bill of Rights differently?

The good news for liberals is that even though the Supreme Court has determined that individuals have a constitutional right to own firearms, the Court left a lot of room for all kinds of regulations of that right. Nearly all of the ideas being floated for stricter control of weapons would probably be permitted under the Court's interpretation. If some gun regulations are not permitted by the Constitution, that is going to be for the courts to decide anyway, so it is no use arguing about it. First, propose and pass whatever gun regulations people decide are appropriate, and let the courts decide if we go too far.

My second rule for improving the debate comes from the mediation community. If we're trying to resolve a conflict, we need to ask participants to focus on their interests, rather than argue positions. Focusing on positions--whether we should or should not regulate guns more strictly--just drives people into opposing camps, and encourages them to assemble justifications for their views. If we instead try to find common interests, we might have a more constructive dialogue about the most effective ways to accomplish that common goal.The only good thing that can be said about the Newtown tragedy is that it made us see our common interest: protecting the safety of children and other innocents. Any constructive discussion of the problem of gun violence must focus on that important interest.

Using that standard, we might have to recognize that there were parts of NRA lobbyist Wayne La Pierre's statement on Friday that could be used to start a constructive dialogue. LaPierre did try to address the common interest we share in protecting the safety of children by proposing the ideas of installing armed guards at all schoolhouses, and also cracking down on violent video games and other media depictions of violence. A lot of people might think these are bad ideas, but if we're going to have a constructive dialogue and debate with the gun enthusiast community--which is a sizable community--then the right way to react to the ideas  LaPierre has proposed is to thank him for his contribution to resolving the problem of gun violence, engage him in a discussion about the effectiveness of his proposed strategies, and ask him whether he is willing to consider any other methods of promoting the same goal of protecting children.

Mall Cop
That leads to my third proposed rule, which is that we should demand empirical evidence supporting any suggestion for dealing with the problem of reducing violence. So if Wayne La Pierre tells us that the only way of stopping a bad guy with a gun is to install a good guy with a gun in every school building (and presumably every shopping mall, every movie theatre, and every other public space), we should demand studies showing the efficacy of this solution. Is that really the ONLY way? What about counseling? What about reducing the bad guy's access to the arms stockpile that his mother might have been assembling? And how effective is one armed security guard standing at the entrance to a school if the bad guy shoots him first? Still, we don't need to rule out increased security as one possible solution to gun violence.  Lots of schools already have guards and gates, and maybe we should consider beefing up some of those protections as part of the solution. But if Wayne LaPierre wants people to be open to his ideas, he needs to be open to other ideas as well. Including ideas that might keep dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands, or restrict access to high volume magazines, or require that gun owners at least pass the kind of licensing and safety tests that we demand of car owners.

Let's get all ideas on the table, look at evidence as to how well they work, and try to solve this problem in a constructive way.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Plan B fails!

The Republican House leadership finally agrees. They wish Plan B were more widely available. Speaker Boehner's back-up plan was withdrawn tonight when the leadership realized they just didn't have the votes to pass it.

This is being portrayed as a failure for the Speaker, but Plan B was actually a pretty clever gambit on his part. To get more of what the Republicans want out of a budget deal, Boehner proposed an alternate plan better for his side than the plan the speaker and the president were negotiating. Boehner thought he might pressure Democrats to agree, otherwise they might be blamed for the failure of the negotiations. But first he had to get his caucus to support Plan B.

The real failure is of the Republican caucus to back the plan. This failure is almost incomprehensible, given that the only alternatives now are either acquiescence to a negotiated agreement worse from the Republican point of view, or the dreaded fiscal cliff. If we go over the fiscal cliff, Republicans lose all their leverage on tax cuts. Taxes will go up automatically for all Americans. And the only alternative on the table will be the Democratic proposal to reduce tax rates for all but the top 2%. How could the House not bring that up for a vote once all the rates have gone up?

Here's what Representative Dan Burton said about that:
"If we go over the fiscal cliff, the president just comes back and says, 'OK, we're going to give tax cuts to everybody under $250,000.' Who's going to vote against that? Everybody'll vote for that. Everybody. Because it will be just a fait accompli. You won't be voting on whether you're going to do away with a tax cut, you're going to be reimposing tax cuts for everybody under $250,000. So the Republicans are in an untenable situation."
What explains the mentality of the House Republicans who tonight rejected the best option they seem to have in these negotiations? Tonight they decided that none of the available alternatives are good enough for them. That means they might get stuck with a worse alternative. I've seen this mentality sometimes displayed by clients and other participants in settlement negotiations in my law practice. I tried to settle an employment discrimination case a while back, for example, in which the company offered x dollars, but the guy thought he should get more like 5x. The amazing thing was that this plaintiff knew he was almost certain to lose the whole case if he went to trial. He was very clear-eyed about it, and yet still could not accept the company's offer even though it was almost certainly better than any available alternative. It just didn't meet the standards of what he felt he was entitled to. A rational person should always choose x if the only choice is between 0 and x. But people are not all that rational. If they have an unshakeable belief that they are entitled to 5x, they would sometimes rather take 0 than settle for less than they believe is right.

That's what the Republican House majority chose to do tonight. They decided they would rather have a big tax increase imposed on their constituents than compromise their "no tax increase" principles in the slightest. They rejected the possibility of agreeing to the tiniest possible tax increase that their leadership could possibly propose. This is not rational thinking. But it's not surprising either. The real world will find its way of imposing itself on the Republican House majority. But they are not going to be a willing partner to that process. 

To be fair, I should mention that Plan B was probably doomed anyway, since the Democrats in the Senate said they probably wouldn't even have brought it up for a vote. And President Obama threatened to veto it. Still, it's got to be way worse for the Republican bargaining position if they can't even agree among themselves to support the least damaging possible plan to their beliefs. It's like refusing to agree to have your smallest toe amputated, even when you know that you will either die or lost your whole leg if you don't. It's amazing to watch a political party do that to themselves. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Budget negotiations

I have a fair amount of experience representing clients in negotiations, and a lot of experience as a mediator as well. What I always have to remind parties in negotiations is not to say no too soon. Show some flexibility and movement if you want the other side to do the same. Wait until the other side has presented what seems close to their best offer before deciding whether or not to accept it. And don't compare that offer to the ideal of what you think you are entitled to. Compare it to the alternative of no deal.

Because in the real world, we don't often get exactly what we think we are entitled to. Instead we get a choice between the deal we can get the other side to agree to, and the alternative of no deal at all. And we might have to offer to accept less than we would like just to find out what the possible deal is.

Looking objectively at the current budget negotiations between Speaker Boehner and President Obama, I don't see anything for either side's supporters to be outraged about at all. Both sides are following fairly standard negotiating tactics. Both are giving ground very slowly. At this stage, the two sides don't really seem all that far apart. And the outlines of a final deal don't seem all that unreasonable.

Everybody knows the final deal will consist of a combination of revenue increases and spending cuts. For the Republicans, the revenue increases will be too large and the spending cuts too small. For the Democrats, the opposite. But look at how much progress we have made since the stalemated budget negotiations of last year, when the Republican side would not agree to any revenue increases at all. Suddenly, the Republican side seems willing to accept tax increases of approximately equal size to spending cuts, which would have been unthinkable for them last year. And to give up their attacks on Medicare. To get those concessions, the Democratic side had to show some willingness to trim slightly their demands for tax increases on the wealthiest Americans, and to tinker with the cost of living formula for Social Security. This all looks like standard negotiating to me. Neither side would be getting closer to a deal, which the parties are, without showing this kind of flexibility. People are kidding themselves if they think that the other side in these negotiations would bend if their side just held firm to their initial positions. Negotiating just plain doesn't work that way. The way it works is the way we are seeing it unfold in public.

Both side's supporters should feel confident that their representatives are doing their best to obtain the best deal possible, and are using every bargaining chip and bit of power at their disposal. At the end of the negotiations, we might quibble about whether one side or the other left a little money on the table. But for now we have no reason to think anybody is getting anything other than the best deal possible for their side.

If the parties do reach a negotiated solution, nobody is going to be entirely happy with it. That's one definition of a negotiated solution. The test is whether it is better than the alternative. Critics of the concessions their side is considering in the negotiation process, would do well to consider the serious negative consequences of failure. Those include tax increases for nearly all Americans, layoffs for federal employees and contractors, market reversals and credit downgrades that will affect the financial condition of the entire country. And perhaps most importantly, the growing sense that this country is so polarized and dysfunctional that it can't even reach agreement on something as basic as a budget, something that should never have been so politicized in the first place.

It's a budget, and it necessarily has to reflect the spending and taxing priorities of all of us. The only way it could truly fail would be for the budget to end up making one party cheer and the other party feel that its priorities were ignored. So people should be happy if we end up with something they're not entirely happy about. The alternative is worse.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


President Obama's speech at Newtown tonight, which makes an unexpected pivot from consoling the victims of tragedy to calling for action at a national level to try to prevent these kinds of violent incidents, is already being compared to Lyndon Johnson's speech after the Selma tragedy, in which he called for passage of the Voting Rights Act. What makes these incidents similar is that both caused people to say, "Enough is enough. We have to do something to solve this problem." The difference is that back then, we had a better idea of what we needed to do. We had a piece of legislation on the table; we just needed the will to pass it.

So this time it was right for the president not to propose any specific measures yet. Instead, he invited the public to begin a dialogue on appropriate responses, and challenged defeatists who doubt that anything effective can be done. President Obama is not claiming to have all the answers, but is expecting us to rise to the challenge. He's clearly heartbroken at repeatedly having to appear at these kinds of events.

The right way to begin a constructive dialogue is to stay open to all good faith suggestions, and to try to avoid the kind of reflexive opposition to anything suggested by opposing parties that represents politics as usual.

Zero Dark Thirty

The new film Zero Dark Thirty is a thrilling account of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden. At the end, it takes you inside the raid on bin Laden's hideout in the incredibly super-realistic way that only a film can do. Before we get to that point, the film lays out a ten year history showing just how difficult it was to find and follow the trail that led to that hideout.

What should be emphasized is that this story is a triumph of feminism. The hero is a woman CIA operative whose dogged focus on her target finally leads to success. Although the film takes some liberties with history for the sake of a good narrative, apparently this part of the story is essentially true. There was a woman at the center of the effort to hunt down bin Laden, and those who want to give credit to the male actors, whether you favor Bush-Cheney, or Obama, or Navy Seal Team 6, must also recognize the key role of a smart, stubborn female detective. And cheers to Mark Boal for a great script, to Kathryn Bigelow for her determination and skill in filming this story, and to Jessica Chastain for bringing this character to life.

What's unfortunate about the film--and perhaps not the film's fault--is that it is going to revive an ugly debate about the efficacy of torture in providing clues that ultimately led to finding bin Laden. For about the first half hour or so, we are treated to graphic depictions of the dark days of secret interrogations of detainees. The filmmakers decided to show these scenes in a neutral or "balanced" way, almost documentary style. The audience is therefore free to decide what to make of this depiction. If you are repulsed, disgusted, and horrified, that is certainly a legitimate reaction. If you see torture as a necessary evil, the movie lets you identify with CIA interrogators who seem to feel that way also. I suppose you could even cheer the mistreatment of the bad guys, in this movie mostly focused on one particular mid-level Al Qaeda bad guy, if you believe that no punishment of the people who plotted the murder of Americans on September 11 can be too gruesome.

The reason I say it's unfortunate that the movie will open up a new debate about torture, is that this debate is not likely to lead anywhere productive. Those who advocate torture will resort to the following logic: After being tortured, some of the detainees talked. Therefore torture was effective. They can point to scenes in the film that justify this logic. Those who are against torture will say that we would have gotten just as good or probably better information without needing to resort to torture. That side of the debate can also point to scenes in the film showing that bribery was more effective than torture, or that the NSA's advanced surveillance techniques were what really led us to the target. It's an unresolvable argument.

This stale debate doesn't resolve the real issue, because even if we were to grant that torture can sometimes be effective, it must still remain illegal. The civilized world has already made that decision and it is irrevocable. There's no debate about it. Nobody who is taking this question seriously is trying to remove the prohibitions against torture under international law, or set up a new legal code defining under what circumstances torture may or may not be used. Even the Bush administration never claimed that torture should be legal. Instead, Bush and Cheney made an effort, relying on the Office of Legal Counsel, to redefine some of the harsh interrogation techniques they authorized, as not constituting torture. But the Bush administration eventually retracted those opinions. To the extent torture continues to occur, it therefore must remain a shadowy practice beyond the bounds of the law. To the extent the CIA engaged in torture, we must remain disgraced by that conduct, or at a minimum, have grave misgivings about it. It's not a record to be proud of.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Shooting children

Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

AP/Jessie Hill

I think Jay Carney might be right that today might not be the day to debate policy proposals, specifically gun control. But I think people who react to that statement by saying if not today, then when?--are also right.

We have a problem, and we need to try to fix it. We need to have a real dialogue about the culture of violence in this country and what we can do about it. We don't need the kind of debate where one person's suggestion is only met by somebody else pointing out what is wrong with that suggestion. Those kinds of debates are themselves symptomatic of the culture of violence we live in. Instead, we need to listen carefully to all legitimate ideas about how to reduce violence, and think about steps we can take to reduce the occurrence of these kinds of tragedies.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Top tweet of the year

Here it is, according to Twitter, the most re-tweeted tweet of the year:

What does this mean for Justin Bieber, who lost out to the president for top tweet, and was also recently de-throned by Psy for most-viewed video of all time?

Friday, December 7, 2012


Are you suffering from post-campaign depression? Are you one of the people who was caught up in the excitement and work of re-electing the president, and now you need an outlet for that energy? Wondering what to do now?

Some people have realized that they should not allow all that campaign energy to dissipate as happened to some extent after the 2008 campaign. They understand that they can't expect the president to accomplish his campaign objectives alone. They are therefore organizing around specific issues.

So if you care about an issue, say whether taxes should be increased on the top 2%, which seems to be the issue of the moment, here are some things people can do right now.  
  • Support Minority Leader Pelosi's Discharge Petition, which would force a vote on ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%,. The petition only needs 40 more signatures. Click below to find out how to fill your Congressional member's voicemail box with reminders to sign. It has an impact.
  • Attend one of more than 250 events coming up all across the country -- all grassroots organized, and geared towards pressuring members of Congress to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%. Groups are planning rallies, phone banks, and such fun events as singing tax cut-themed carols outside a Rep's office. Find out if one is happening near you here:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The people's will

The latest polling from ABC/Washington Post shows that a substantial majority of the public favor restoring 1990's tax rates on the top 2% of earners, and that an even larger majority (two-thirds!) strongly opposes raising the eligibility age for Medicare to 67.

So why, we might ask, are Republican counter-proposals for avoiding the so-called "fiscal cliff" still refusing to agree to the Democratic position, the position that President Obama practically staked his re-election campaign on, that the Bush tax cuts must end for those making over $250,000 per year? And why the Republican focus on cutting benefits to Medicare benefits for seniors, from Republicans who practically staked their election campaign on an attack on the administration for cutting Medicare benefits? (Remember all the talk about the $700 billion supposedly taken from Medicare to fund Obamacare?)

What gives? The House of Representatives is supposed to be the body of government most responsive to the people's will. If would be one thing if the Republican House leadership could make the argument that despite the people's will, their representatives need to be the grown-ups and make the tough decisions necessary to balance the budget. But the Republican proposals don't do a better job of balancing the budget than the Democratic proposals. They do a worse job, in fact. The savings from increasing the age of Medicare eligibility are paltry compared to the revenue gains from raising the top marginal income tax rate from 35% to 39%.

It's time for Republicans in Congress to pay heed to the idea that we live in some semblance of a democracy. If for no other reason than that polls also show that the public knows exactly which side they will blame more if the parties fail to make a deal before the end of the year.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

What the fiscal cliff means

Whether you get your news from Fox, CNN, MSNBC or Jon Stewart, all you will hear is that the looming January 1 deadline to reach a budget deal represents a crisis that we should try to avert. Democrats and Republicans in Congress might disagree about what we need to do to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, although they don't really disagree as much as it appears--everyone agrees, for example, that we should at least extend the Bush tax cuts for middle income taxpayers. What everyone also seems to agree on is that the possibility of expiration of all these tax cuts at once, combined with some fairly drastic mandated spending cuts, represents a significant danger to our economy. Why is raising taxes and cutting government spending such a danger to the economy? And what does it mean that everyone agrees that raising taxes and cutting too much government spending is in fact a grave danger to the economy right now?

Of course it makes sense that if everyone's take home pay decreases, people will have less to spend on whatever they need or want to spend money on, and that will slow economic activity, but remember that that decrease would be balanced out by an increase in government revenues, which would have the effect of reducing the government's need to borrow to pay its bills. And that's supposed to be a good thing too. But if we agree that more consumer spending is better for the economy than a reduction in the amount the government has to borrow, then we are endorsing the existence of deficits in slow economic times. In other words, we are admitting, as President Nixon is supposed to have admitted, that, Republicans and Democrats alike, we are all Keynesians now. (Nixon actually only admitted that he was now a Keynesian, but the phrase stuck.)

And it's not just tax cuts that we agree on. We also agree that cutting government spending would be bad for the economy. Every day Republicans are warning us of the dire effects of sequestration on the Defense budget, not just because of the danger that would pose to national security, but also because defense cuts will harm the economy. If we cut defense spending, we put defense contractors out of work, and we reduce the size of military bases that employ many thousands of people. Obviously that would be bad for the economy just as raising taxes would slow down the economy.

I repeat: if we all agree that going over the fiscal cliff is a bad thing, that necessarily implies that we all agree that reducing the deficit too drastically is a bad thing. We agree that we have to keep taxes low and government spending high. There is nothing else that our fear of the fiscal cliff can mean.

And that means that everything that the deficit hawks have been saying since the recession hit in 2008, and all of the attacks on the Obama administration for allowing the deficit to increase, is complete and utter bullshit. No matter who had been in office the last four years, we would have had an exploding deficit. And we would have allowed that to happen on purpose, because we all agree that balancing the budget would only have made the recession worse.

The real difference between the two parties in the budget negotiations has nothing to do with the deficit. The Democrats' budget proposals will maintain a big fat deficit next year. So will the Republicans.  The difference is in spending and taxing priorities. The Republicans want to maintain a big deficit by keeping defense expenditures high, and by cutting taxes for the wealthy. The Democrats want to maintain a big deficit by keeping social expenditures high, but they also want to increase taxes slightly on the wealthy. Both sides will argue that their taxing and spending priorities are better for the economy, but that is mostly bullshit also.

What is helping the economy the most is keeping the deficit high. Whether we do that by cutting taxes or by increasing spending, and what we spend the money on, are important but only secondary considerations, at least as far as the overall effects on the economy are concerned. And since we agree on so much, that means we will eventually reach agreement on a package that will keep taxes low for the middle class, and will also include only modest cuts in government spending. We will do that because we agree that, at least for now, we need to maintain a fairly large deficit to keep the economy from sliding back in recession.