Whereupon our hero, Captain America, takes another call on the debt-crisis hotline.
Caller: You better start running this crisis hotline 24/7. The European and Asian markets are already jumpy and getting jumpier.
CA: Captain America never sleeps.
Caller: What is Washington going to do?
CA: Well, I was partially wrong about the McConnell plan. I said it had no chance. It has a slight chance—principally because alternatives appear scarce. Think of it as the idea inside the box that reads, “In case of emergency, break glass.”
Caller: My Facebook news feed has something about the “Gang of Six” coming back to life.
CA: More lives than a sack of cats.
Caller: Can they shake things up, get a solution?
CA: History says no. But we’re beyond history now. This is the era of legislation by flailing. The Gang of Six now says it has 50 potential followers. That’s 10 fewer than it needs to break a filibuster, but close enough to matter. But I’m not calling them the Gang of Six anymore. Last week it was the Gang of Five, now it’s the Gang of Seven. I’m calling them the Gang of Jesters.
Caller: You mean they’re amusing?
CA: Like a sack of cats. But there’s another reason. Jesters in ancient Rome were actors who made emperors laugh but also made them think. Sometimes they held the emperor up for gentle ridicule and were purged for questioning authority. These wandering actors may have been the earliest awakening of medieval and Renaissance nonconformity and comic thought. Plus, in Washington for months now, the best gag going has been the gang’s self-reverential budget piety.
Caller: Putting that jab aside, is their plan nonconformist?
CA: Like Voldemort on steroids. The proof? Within hours, the Right and Left attacked it. As any jester will tell you, zealots are a tough crowd, and these ones really don’t get bipartisan humor.
Caller: But I heard President Obama likes it.
CA: He does, principally because it’s not his. If it fails, it’s the jesters’ fault. He doesn’t own it. The jesters do—just like jokes told to the emperor or king. Similarly, if the audience likes it, it redounds to the king’s favor. (Metaphor alert: Not calling Obama an emperor or king; work with me people.)
Caller: Why does the Left dislike it?
CA: Two big reasons: One, it would change the consumer price index formula to make entitlements like Social Security and Medicare less generous. That means benefit cuts.
Caller: Right away?
CA: No. There’s a five-year grace period and a five-year phase-in after that. But the Left doesn’t want seniors on fixed incomes losing benefits and buying power to reduce the federal deficit.
Caller: What’s their other gripe?
CA: There’s no new taxes on the rich; it has corporate tax cuts; and has year-by-year domestic cuts and vague cost-savings from Medicare and Medicaid. All this, they say, puts the burden of deficit reduction on the economically vulnerable.
Caller: What about the Right?
CA: There’s tax increases through unspecified changes to home-mortgage deductions, charitable-giving deductions, and elimination of the Bush tax cuts. Plus, there’s no structural overhaul of Medicare or Medicaid as in the plan issued by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. What’s more, the budget-process savings and tax reforms come after the debt ceiling is raised.
Caller: Why do the Gang of Jesters like it?
CA: Because it blends many promising ideas such as tax reform (three rates instead of six, with fewer deductions) with lower corporate tax rates. At the same time, it takes Social Security out of the deficit equation, doesn’t change the Medicare or Medicaid structure, cuts spending, and sets hard numbers everyone would have to budget with until 2015—all with a goal of reducing the deficit by $3.7 trillion over 10 years.
Caller: I don’t know if I’m sold.
CA: You and about 307 million other Americans are just hearing about it.
Caller: Does it have the votes?
CA: In the Senate, maybe. In the House, no.
Caller: So it’s dead.
CA: Right now, nothing is living and nothing is dead.
Caller: Great. I feel worse now than ever.
CA: You’re not alone. Gold prices are up, stocks are volatile. Tuesday’s market was up, but that’s no guarantee. Every gain is ephemeral and possibly misleading until this is over. Meanwhile, yields on Treasury bonds are rising. Pessimistic psychology is beginning to intrude.
Caller: This doesn’t sound very funny.
CA: It isn’t.
Caller: Can I break that glass now?
This article appears in the July 20, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.