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Gimme shelter! Your Rolling Stones guide to the 'fiscal cliff'

Yes, we know the fiscal cliff is not always easy to understand. But help is here. Mick Jagger and the music of Rolling Stones can explain it all – with satisfaction – in nine easy steps. Seriously.

By Staff writer / December 14, 2012

Kindred spirits? Perhaps Mick Jagger (l.) of the Rolling Stones and House Speaker John Boehner (r.) have more in common than we thought. (AP Photo, )

Dave Allocca/Starpix/AP and J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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When the machinery of US politics isn't working quite the way anyone would like, sometimes it's helpful to step back and for some perspective. And sometimes music helps us do that.

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Staff writer

Mark Trumbull writes on economic and other news for the Monitor's National section. He's based in Boston.

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With the Rolling Stones on a US tour, and with the future of US taxes and federal spending in doubt, here's a primer on the perilous political landscape known as the "fiscal cliff": Why the nation is in this mess, and how it might be solved.

It's probably unrealistic to expect that Mick Jagger will come to the rescue of Washington (emotionally or otherwise). But some of the music that he and his colleagues have made can at least offer a hummable sound track, and perhaps some practical insights, for the fiscal mess.

"I was born in a cross-fire hurricane" (from "Jumpin' Jack Flash," 1968)

How did this fiscal cliff originate, anyway? Basically, in a gathering storm of partisan disagreement. For years, Republicans in Congress have resisted the idea of tax hikes as a way to close federal deficits. And Democrats have resisted Republican ideas on reducing the size of government by curbing some types of federal spending.

Things came to a head in 2011, as politicians sought to grapple with their differences amid a climate of fast-rising national debt. They failed to reach a compromise, other than to agree that automatic spending cuts would kick in at the beginning of 2013. That, coupled with the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the same time, sets the stage for the current reckoning – the pressure to enact a better fiscal plan.

"Who could hang a name on you?" (from "Ruby Tuesday," 1967)

The predicament didn't have to be called fiscal cliff. In fact, that phrase had been bandied about on occasion, prior to this year, in a wholly different context. Some conservatives had used it to conjure up the image that rising federal debt would plunge the nation into economic ruin.

But over the past 12 months, the term has been adopted for a different meaning: the notion that if the scheduled tax hikes and spending cuts happen, the economy could be plunged into recession by the sudden hit to consumer spending. Ordinary households would have less money in their paychecks, and the federal government would be playing a smaller role as a consumer of goods and services.

Some conservatives hung a different name on the problem: "taxmageddon." Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was one of the ones who helped popularize the cliff phraseology, which has the virtue of encompassing the spending as well as the tax side of the challenge. 

"They can't say we never tried" (from "Angie," 1973)

With the day of reckoning near, the good news is that the political parties are talking – trying to cut a fiscal bargain that would avert a sudden shock to the economy while at the same time reducing federal deficits. The lead actors in this drama are President Obama on the Democratic side and House Speaker John Boehner for the Republicans. They aren't smiling much on camera. But they keep holding meetings. Neither side wants to go down as the one that didn't try hard enough to reach a deal.

"Now I need you more than ever" (from "Let's Spend the Night Together," 1967)

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