If there ever was such a thing as a fiscal cliff, most Americans will tell you that they fell off it around 2008. But that's not what our politicians would have you believe, and the political theater to which we've all been subjected over the past few weeks is clear evidence of that. In what many Democrat pundits are trying to spin as white-flag politics, it would appear the so-called "fiscal cliff" deal is done. Each side will spin the merits, or lack thereof, for the purposes of the overblown shadow play that we witnessed over the holidays. The reality, however, is that the difference between right and left is insignificant when you consider the kind of money that some people are making these days in the more rapacious sectors of our economy.
At least during the debates about the Credit Card Reform Act and Dodd-Frank, the opposing sides were the citizenry vs. the financial corporations. What we're dealing with here is harder to define. That's because the fiscal cliff is in no small way a histrionic and hysterical method of framing budgetary issues by way of bully non-choices: Want a weakened military? Higher taxes for the middle class? How about a double-dip recession? While we're at it, when did you stop beating your partner? The fiscal cliff is unsolvable by design. The real problem here is that people are calling this a done deal, when in fact it is a non-deal deal.
The misguided (unprincipled?) compromise of 2011 that created it must be seen for the train wreck of congressional leadership that allowed it to happen. In no small measure, we're in this mess not just because of a "crisis" around debt or Medicare. We are in this mess because of an identity crisis. Too many lawmakers have gotten elected with too much corporate backing, and as a result a board room mentality has metastasized throughout a budget process that theoretically depends on the checks and balances of power that allegedly define the collective "process" that is our elected representation in Washington. So in one way, we're to blame by voting for the best corporate-sponsored marketing campaign.
The fiscal cliff is ultimately about banks, desperate to maintain the unsustainable profits created by the mortgage boom, selling mortgages to people who could not afford them. It's about balloon payments and adjustable interest rates, time bombs disguised as mortgages. It's as if Donald Trump secretly took over the banking industry -- and as a result a casino culture that is all flash and no substance prevails. The fiscal cliff is the bully's threat -- and the above financial FUBAR is what the bully is trying to protect. It is not about whether the middle class tops out at $250,000 a year or $450,000, since most members of the middle class would be euphoric to earn such income.
Citizens United is not the moment we placed corporations' rights over those of actual human beings. The Supreme Court's decision capped a decade-long process of corporate empowerment. Now, these same corporate interests (through their purchased representatives in Congress) have manufactured a bogus fiscal cliff in the cynical hope that they can foist even more responsibility off their ledgers and onto the backs of America's non-rich.
The "cliff" is a metaphorical illusion -- a political construct. Forget the narrow confines of its binary problem (tax breaks for the rich vs. continuing insurance for the unemployed), a political problem allows for a creative, political solution. We should use this fake, ginned-up "crisis" to our advantage and solve the real problems faced by real Americans. We should demand that that happens.
It could be that the answer to what ails America economically is rewarding companies that operate with a healthy reality principle like the Triple Bottom Line system of accounting where decisions are predicated by the "Three P's:" Profit, People and Planet. Whatever we do, it's time for the country to age out of the fake value, paper-billionaire age and start looking for ways to create real value for investors, workers and the nation.
As the novelist Edward Abbey famously wrote, "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell." We've all spent too much time in the casino culture that created the fiscal cliff to simply walk away from it unscathed. It's the way of the house, which makes a bundle whether you lose money or not. The fiscal cliff is a scary way of framing the fact that we need a mid-course correction in this country with regard to the way we do business in Washington and everywhere else in the country.
One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. It seems sane to refuse to have the same corporations that caused this mess (or the lawmakers who represent them exclusively at the expense of taxpayers) dictate our options for solving it. It's time to call their bluff.
Adam Levin is chairman and cofounder of Credit.com and Identity Theft 911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit.