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David Sirota
David Sirota
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The Truth Behind the Fiscal Cliff's Reality TV Show


During the halcyon 1990s, we labeled annual congressional temper tantrums for what they were: standard, if boring, budget impasses. Now, though, in a hilariously non-ironic flail for ratings, news outlets have taken Nigel Tufnel's famous line from "Spinal Tap" seriously, turning the volume up to 11 by portraying the latest standoff as a harrowing "fiscal cliff," replete with doomsday countdown clocks, gaudy NFL-quality graphics, and endless Twitter hashtags.

If anyone outside the Beltway was paying attention (a big "if"), they probably thought the title referred to an old episode of "Cheers" in which the goofy mailman does his taxes. After all, replaying reruns would have been more compelling content than this latest installment of "Real World: U.S. Capitol."

Reality TV, of course, is this moment's perfect metaphor. That schlocky format's foundational oxymoron - it is "real" but not real - also defines contemporary politics.

Think about it: we understand "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" as "real" only in the sense that the characters use their own names. But we also understand that most of Kim and Chloe's strife is manufactured. It's the same for Washington - in the fiscal cliff melodrama, we heard that Speaker John Boehner dropped the f-bomb on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and we saw Democratic lawmakers perform maudlin to-camera testimonies about their supposed loyalty to the middle class. Yet, those few watching at home almost certainly sensed that it was all a scripted production - one whose outcome was predetermined.

To appreciate how the kabuki theater works, consider three big outcomes of the fiscal cliff legislation that the attendant reality TV show never highlighted:

1. Bush defeats Clinton: President Clinton's tax rates delivered big budget surpluses and one of history's strongest rates of economic growth. By contrast, President Bush's cuts to those tax rates birthed massive deficits and the slowest rate of economic growth in modern history.

Yet, faced with the fiscal cliff's choice between Clinton and Bush tax rates, both parties agreed to ratify almost all of the latter.

For Republicans, this victory was summed up by Bush's former spokesman, Ari Fleischer, who said simply, "it's fantastic." For Democrats, their triumphant rhetoric about their one small win - restoring Clinton rates on income above $400,000 - obscures a humiliating truth. Essentially, the party that spent so much political capital to modestly raise taxes and restore fiscal sanity after the Reagan binge was bullied into undoing much of its own fiscal legacy.

2. Nobody in Washington cares about deficits: During December's "fiscal cliff" TV show, D.C.'s reality stars told us that they were focused on reducing the budget deficit. But, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the final bill will increase the budget deficit by $4 trillion.

3. Corporate welfare is sacrosanct: For all the effort to make wasteful spending the villain in the "fiscal cliff" TV show, Congress ultimately refused to touch that spending. Somehow, defense contractor largesse in the bloated Pentagon budget was off the table. Somehow, subsidies to corporate agribusiness were separated from the negotiations and then extended. Meanwhile, as the Roosevelt Institution's Matt Stoller documented, the final "fiscal cliff" bill included taxpayer handouts for everything from NASCAR racetracks, to Hollywood studios, to a new Goldman Sachs headquarters.

If you find these facts more depressing than the fantasies that dominated the public version of the "fiscal cliff" drama, then you appreciate why so many Americans prefer reality TV over genuine documentaries. A shrink-wrapped "reality" hyped for maximum titillation is, indeed, more pleasant to watch than actual reality. Congress and the political media know this, so they give viewers what they think we want.

The problem is that the real story gets lost in translation, leaving us at once totally disgusted, occasionally entertained and permanently fleeced ... just as Washington wants.

David Sirota is the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." Email him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at



4 Comments | Post Comment
Pretty good, but are you sure that it was the tax hikes, not big wars and government meddeling that caused a weak economy under Bush. After all, why would more money in peoples pockets lead to slower economic growth?
Comment: #1
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Jan 4, 2013 9:16 AM
Nice Cheers reference! And great points about the deficit and corporate welfare, which is NOT being talked about anywhere I've seen in the Corporate Media. Why were these corporate giveaways even part of the final package? I thought it was just supposed to be addressing the automatic return to Clinton tax rates on the middle class, but NASCAR bailouts are a new tax giveaway altogether!

Don't forget that most of the talking-heads on TV are part of the rich elite class themselves and are friends with the Pete Petersons, Simsons, and Bowels that were instrumental in hyping the so-called "fiscal cliff" which was just a scam to scare Americans into demanding that the tax giveaways remain for the so-called "wealth creators" and demand that their Social Security and Medicaid earned benefits be taken away from them.

Chris - The NEOCON wars of choice, while a total waste of human life and American resources, were actually stimulative to the economy. Defense spending is usually stimulative. But it's not the kind of productive stimulus we want because it doesn't produce anything of value in the end, like we get when we do infrastructure projects. It isn't an investment that increases economic activity, it just makes the defense contractors rich and produces instruments of war that get destroyed. More money in RICH folk's pockets doesn't do anything to increase economic growth. But more money in the pockets of the poor and middle class folks does. This is the problem with the Bush administration (and Republican ideology in general): they don't care about helping anyone but the rich, so during the Bush term the poor didn't get a tax cut because all they didn't receive enough income and the tax cut for the middle class was eaten up by increased expenses and the loss of their houses due to the Wall Street Banksters crashing the economy and loss of jobs due to our insane so-called "free" trade policies.

It's not just raising/lowering taxes that effects economic activity, it's how they are structured. Give more money to the rich and the economy stagnates while the rich speculate in the markets causing volatility and destabilization of markets. Give more to everyone else and it prospers because they don't just hoard it, they spend it on goods. Raise taxes on capital (dividends and capital gains) and you actually increase reinvestment in business instead of allowing companies like Bain Capital to create a business model around the process of extracting as much wealth from a company as they can and then leaving them for dead. How taxes are structured has a huge effect on our economy. It's just that the Republican ideology on taxes is exactly upside down.
Comment: #2
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Jan 4, 2013 11:24 AM
How does government get its money? Through taxes. Taxes come from the economy, which produces jobs. For every 10 jobs the government produces, it has to take 14 jobs out of the private sector. Government can NEVER produce net jobs. Defense spending is also amoung the least efficient in job creations. War cannot help us get to a stronger economy. The fact that defense spending can lead to a stronger economy is a common republican fallacy, and one reason why I can never get behind them.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Sat Jan 5, 2013 9:18 PM
Chris -

Not true. Those are right-wing myths about government jobs. A government job is a real job and that worker receives a real income that they put some of back into the economy. It is no different than a private sector job. What is it that would inherently cause a government job to take 1.4 jobs out of the private sector? That just makes no sense. And what that tells me is that government is more efficient the the private sector if 1 government worker can do the work of 1.4! In fact, in many cases, the private sector is less efficient than the government. Look at Medicare verses the private Health Care Industry. Medicare overhead is so much lower than the private sector because they don't have to pay their CEO's huge salaries and pay for marketing and advertising expenses. And in other cases the government provides jobs that private industry won't touch because there is no profit in it, so in that regard government actually produces more jobs than the private sector.

I do agree with you about defense spending and was trying to make that point. It is the least efficient at producing jobs and it produces no lasting value for our economy, but it does produce jobs and therefore it is a form of stimulus even as weak as it is.
Comment: #4
Posted by: A Smith
Fri Jan 11, 2013 11:40 AM
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