Serious People Could be Seriously Embarrassed: Why It’s Important that We Not Go Off the “Fiscal Cliff“

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Much of the media has spent the last month and a half hyping the impact of the “fiscal cliff,” the tax increases and spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect at the end of the year. They have been warning of a recession and other dire consequences if a deal is not struck by December 31st. As we are now getting down to the final two weeks and the prospect that there will not be a deal becomes more likely, many in the media are getting more frantic.

What they fear is yet another huge embarrassment, if people see the deadline come and go and the economy doesn’t crash and the world doesn’t end. The reality, as all budget analysts know, is that no one will see more taxes coming out of their paychecks until they actually get paid later in the month. If a deal is imminent or actually struck in the first weeks of January then most workers will never be taxed at the higher Clinton era rate. They will be taxed in accordance with the deal that President Obama reaches with the Republicans.

And those who do have money taken out of a check will have it returned in the next one. This might be bad news for people who are skimming by paycheck to paycheck, but the impact on the economy will be too small to measure.

The same applies on the spending side. If President Obama sees a deal in sight then he will adjust spending in accordance with the amount that he expects to agree to with Congress, not the amount specified in the sequester. The impact on the economy will be essentially zero, except of course for the impact of the budget cuts that Congress and President Obama actually agree to put in place.

In other words, if January 1, 2013 comes and there is no deal, we will likely see that the Serious People were again out to lunch. This will be yet another blow to the credibility of the people who are telling us that we have to cut Social Security and Medicare and do all sorts of other things that somehow always seem to have the effect of hurting the poor and middle class.

Of course many may say that the Serious People have recovered from past humiliations. After all, how long did it take them to get over the fact that not one of them was able to see the $8 trillion housing bubble whose collapse wrecked the economy? And there can be little doubt that they will quickly rewrite the history so that none of them was actually issuing the dire warnings we keep hearing about the fiscal cliff.

But some people will remember, and there will always be people rude enough to bring up past mistakes. So the Serious People really do have a lot at stake here. If we go past January 1 and there is no deal, they will be very unhappy.