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.

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

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.

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)

The president and Speaker Boehner can't do this all by themselves. They need to rally votes withing their party ranks. With power divided between a Democratic president, a Republican-controlled House, and a Senate that's closely divided (with a Democratic majority), this is tricky. A deal that's acceptable to enough senators may not be one that all House Republicans are eager to rally behind. In the end, some lawmakers in both parties may vote "no." What counts is whether a majority in each house of Congress can vote "yes."

"I don't have much time" (from "Wild Horses," 1971)

Ideally for the economy, this all would have been settled long ago. It's not a good for the job market when employers have a major (and man-made) reason to be unsure what the economy will look like next year. With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, the window for reaching a deal before year end is fast closing. An 11th-hour compromise could be reached. If it isn't, negotiations would continue in the new year – with politicians feeling added pressure because as spending cuts and tax hikes start to appear as realities in the lives of voters.

"You can't always get what you want" (song title and lyric, 1969)

Earth to Washington: Mick's dose of realism here is helpful to keep in mind. Given the division of power in Washington, any solution will call for some sacrifice on both sides.

And from taxpayers, too. Many budget experts predict that lawmakers will ultimately need to expand tax revenue and restrain entitlement spending, even though neither of those things wins popularity contests with voters. That's because the path of current policies, if continued, is projected to bring an ever-higher debt burden, which could dim the economy's vibrancy and threaten a loss of investor confidence. The steps are unlikely to occur all at once in a "grand bargain of 2013," but the cliff talks may chart part of the path.

"This town's full of money grabbers" (from "Shattered," 1978)

OK, that song was about New York, not Washington. But the lyric can serve as a reminder that money plays a significant role in federal politics. A fair amount of it flows to politicians from Wall Street. But the broader point is that as lawmakers consider various fiscal reforms, just about every federal program or tax break has a constituency that is fighting for its importance. Here's hoping that what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" will guide the decisionmaking in the national interest.

"I sit and watch as tears go by" (from "As Tears Go By," 1965)

American voters may be forgiven if they feel a little frustrated as they watch all the fiscal saga unfold. But they're players in the process, too. The approval ratings of Congress are at epic lows, but each member of the House or Senate is there because he or she won a vote, often with high approval from constituents. So it may not be fair to gripe that you can't get satisfaction, politically. There's the opportunity to write a letter to your representative, to rethink your preferences each time an election rolls around, and to weigh changes such as the district-drawing reforms that some states have undertaken.
 "Paint It Black" (Song title, 1966)

The fiscal dream come true for deficit hawks would be a plan that ultimately brings black ink back onto the federal ledger. Remember when, for a time, the fiscal debate was about what to do with surpluses instead of deficits? What seems realistic for that ledger in the near term, however, is just a plan to let it bleed a little less red ink. And maybe to give us some shelter from the risk of a tax-induced recession in the near term.

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