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Behind the Lines: Apocalypse Again
First Published Mar 04 2013 08:49 am • Last Updated Mar 04 2013 08:50 am

Welcome to Behind the Lines, a weekly conversation with Salt Lake Tribune cartoonist Pat Bagley and BYU economist Val Lambson.

Lambson: As I write this (Friday afternoon) there still seems to be no compromise in sight and automatic spending cuts are on the horizon. Is the doomsday machine credible after all? I doubt it. By the time this appears, or soon thereafter, I expect this manufactured crisis will be over. The doomsday machine will be disabled and replaced by the can-kicker-down-the-roader.

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Bagley: Sequestration was never meant to be a Dr. Strangelove Doomsday Device. It is a weight loss program that works by cutting off various body parts, starting with fingers and toes below the first knuckle, then working up to limbs. As weight loss programs go it’s pretty stupid. Contrary to your expectations, the sequester will be with us for weeks, and may be incorporated into yet-another-looming-fiscal-crises when the debt ceiling comes around for consideration once again at the end of this month.

Lambson: It was meant to be a credible threat, something that both sides would so want to avoid that they would feel compelled to leave the can-kicker-down-the-roader in the closet and actually deal with spending issues. The problem is that it isn’t credible because although everyone agrees that some programs are far more important than others, there isn’t general agreement on which those are.

Bagley: Mutually assured destruction only works as deterrence if you’re dealing with rational actors. All bets are off if one side is crazy. This is a story about how Republicans stopped worrying and learned to love the sequester. I know, here I go again blaming Republicans. Aren’t both sides equally at fault? No. As this Ezra Klein column makes crystal clear, the Republican position is completely nuts.

Lambson: The so-called fiscal cliff was avoided two months ago by an agreement whereby those who want government to grow got tax increases on the wealthy in return for a promise to discuss spending cuts later. You are accusing the Republicans of not being willing to compromise when they have already compromised.

Bagley: The problem with the GOP is that it believes its own talking points. OK, one of its problems. They tell themselves that revenue was "off the table" (I really hate that expression) after the fiscal cliff. Obama and the Democrats made no such promise. Republicans also yammer to themselves that Obama is not open to spending cuts when it is right there in bold type on the White House website.

Boehner claimed he got 98 percent of what he wanted in the 2011 budget showdown. The Bush tax cuts were made permanent law for 99.7 percent of the U.S. in the fiscal cliff, and all that Republicans can whine about is that the richest of the rich will have to pay a little more on reported income above $450,000. Despite expressing concern about the deficit, the real agenda of the GOP is clear from its actions: Protect the uber-wealthy and their tax deductions for yachts and private jets at all costs.

Lambson: Almost nobody in either major party is open to spending cuts, unless you count increasing spending more slowly than the unsustainable rates they have been advocating. Class warfare rhetoric just gets in the way of meaningful dialogue on what the government should be doing and how it should be doing it. I would argue, for example, that the Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Afghanistan, and so on and on and on, have been ineffective, and they ought to be reconsidered. They contribute a lot more to our fiscal problems than the cost of a few yachts. Instead of tackling real issues, politicians and certain cartoonists build on pervasive class envy to shift the debate to whether the wealthy deserve their wealth. The more important long term issues are loaded into the can-kicker-down-the-roader. In short, the debate is about how to fund government business as usual instead of whether government business ought to be as usual.

Bagley: More and more of the wealth of this nation is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Closing tax loopholes favored by the rich wouldn’t hurt the economy and would bring down the deficit. That’s not envy. That’s math.

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Last week’s Top Comment is from builderjohn: The GOP has been so determined to scuttle the Obama Presidency however, that smart has been off the table for the last four years.

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