Today we bring a new voice to Women’s Voices for Change. Pamela J. Forsythe has a refreshing Everywoman’s approach to the hysteria and holding-forth that surround discussions of our economic crisis. We love how she frames her thoughts in a metaphor we all can understand from the days when our perspective on life was from the backseat of the family car. —Ed.
Six weeks into Zero Broke Thirteen, Americans still don’t know where we’re going, fiscally speaking, but we sure are on our way. In the latest leg of our journey, which feels more and more like a bad car trip, we skirted the Fiscal Cliff and slammed into the Debt Ceiling. The landscape hasn’t changed. The same people are driving. No one can agree on directions.
Most of us are in the backseat, strapped in and waving goodbye to our expectations. Weary of listening to the sniping in front, we discuss where we’re headed. We know changes are coming for Social Security and Medicare; we’re not idiots. How long will a person have to work? How much will benefits shrink? What will health care look like? What are the real options—not the my-way-or-the-highway ones? We wish someone would give it to us straight.
Without solid information, pessimism runs rampant. Most of us assume that we won’t be able to retire. Ever. We speculate about potential jobs for aging, disappointed, and testy workers. Suffice it to say that in the future, you will want to stand back wherever hot beverages are being served.
Though we didn’t go over the cliff on December 31, we were left in financial midair. Most of the vexing landmarks are still out there, and the team in the front seat can’t agree on a plan. They keep floating ideas and deadlines by us, like roving repair crews that create endless disruption but never seem to finish a job.
Originally, everything was to have been settled by year-end. No one was surprised, however, when they ran out the clock. Our front-seat team eased through the Grover Norquist Memorial Tolls (It’s not a payroll tax increase, it’s an expiring tax cut!), re-worked taxes on high-income people (who sit in the middle seats, which can be used as flotation devices). Then the team gave themselves until February for the rest of the course corrections. So we awoke to a new year with faces pressed against the Debt Ceiling, all $16.4 trillion of it. Thoughts turned to March 1, the day when the economic station wagon is set to arrive at Sequester Bridge, which may descend arbitrarily and shut down Recovery Highway.
Recently, the debt limit was raised until May. The United States can borrow enough to pay its obligations, things like Social Security benefits, military pensions, contracts, and so on. Those of us in back recognize this game from Summer 2011. That round of Debt Limit Chicken resulted in the invention of the Fiscal Cliff and Sequester, which were to have imposed discipline and led to a comprehensive financial fix. So we listen in, roll our eyes, and get back to looking for a way to release the child-proof door locks.
Experts warn that using the debt limit as a fiscal speed bump is a really bad idea. It threatens our credit rating, fiscal stability, and international standing. Frankly, all of that seems a little remote to the backseaters, who are more interested in getting a group rate on insulated socks and sleeping bags.
President Obama recently explained that forcing the country into default would not only keep Social Security recipients and the military from being paid, it would prevent payment of food inspectors, air traffic controllers, and “specialists who track down loose nuclear materials.”
Ears perked up from one end of the backseat to the other. Nuclear material is on the loose? And a frozen debt limit will keep us from paying the people who go after it? Forget insulated socks—can we swing by a big-box store for radiation gear?
As things stand now, the new drop-dead dates are March 1 for the across-the-board budget cuts and May 18, by which time our representatives will have addressed the budget, the deficit, entitlements; permanently solved the debt limit; and, for all we know, sorted out climate change, continental drift, and the infield-fly rule.
If they can’t meet that schedule, the Treasury Department has a plan. When we hit the limit in December, then–Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner announced he would keep fuel in the tank using “extraordinary measures.” What are they? Picture Treasury staff shaking the national sofa cushions for several millions to tide us over.
Obviously, it is time for the economic station wagon to seek professional help. We can no longer afford drivers who head straight for every pothole, ignore stop signs, refuse to yield, and dig in their heels when they should be using their heads. The warranty is about to expire, and we need to get moving in a better direction.