Seriousness Examined

No, you’re not alone. When someone tells you it’s time to get serious it’s quite natural to giggle – people can get serious about the oddest things. This happens a lot in high school sports – in the huddle the quarterback gets all gruff and serious and says this is it, time to pull off the big play and somehow win the big game, and he starts chanting something or other, and then his voice cracks. Everyone snickers, even the nearby officials. It’s a matter of perspective. It’s only a damned high school football game. In the great scheme of things it really doesn’t matter. It’s tempting to smirk at the quarterback and tell him to get serious. Everyone else signed up for football because it was something to do, and it might impress the girls, or they had to sign up because their father was a failed jock with a shaky sense of self-worth. Pep talks, where you’re told to bear down and finally get serious, seem beside the point. You don’t giggle at the coach’s pep talks of course, or even roll your eyes, because he might catch that. That guy can make your life miserable, so you giggle inwardly, silently. It’s the same thing when you talk to your parents. Yes, you’ll get serious about your grades now. Yes, you’re shining them on.

When someone tells you it’s time to get serious it’s also natural to be suspicious. They probably want something, which is the case, later in life, when your boss tells all of you it’s time to get serious. The company is still popping out lots of high-quality widgets, turning a good profit, but someone up the chain of command had no doubt been hammering your boss, maybe simply because they just don’t like him much. That sort of thing happens all the time, but he wants to keep his job, so somehow all of you have to get serious now. Each of you will get a talking to, about productivity and attitude, and then keep doing what you’ve always been doing, and doing it quite well – but you will try to look more serious about it. It’s not all that hard, even if it is a bit silly – but you play the game, a game of charades actually, and you make a note of this. In the future be suspicious of anyone telling you it’s time to get serious. There’s probably something else going on. There’s always something else going on.

There are other variants. When a young man makes a move on a sweet young thing, inching closer, she’s likely to utter those two deadly words – Get Serious! That means no, and additionally means that you’re such a loser you must of have been crazy to think you had even a ghost of a chance with her. You’re nothing – so obviously, those two words can also be used as a weapon. In fact they’re used as that sort of weapon in Washington. There are the serious people, who understand things and run things, or should be running things if the stupid voters had more sense, and then there are the feckless dilettantes, playing at government, proposing childish nonsense. They’re nothing – and that’s what you saw play out in the run-up to the Iraq War almost ten years ago. Serious people knew we had to take out Saddam Hussein and those who thought that was both odd and beside the point were said to be not serious people at all. Half the world and endless experts listened to our reasoning and found it full of holes, and looked at the evidence that Saddam Hussein was up to nefarious things and found it totally unconvincing, but somehow the argument about just who the serious people were won the day. Things got sidetracked. No one talked about the facts at hand. Everyone talked about who was serious here, now. It somehow became a matter of character. Just say the other guy just isn’t serious, and say it over and over and over again until it sticks like Finger Licking Good sticks to Kentucky Fried Chicken. The argument was reduced to one simple and absurdly vague appeal, that it was time to get serious, somehow or other. It was a brilliant scam.

No one should have been surprised. When Bush ran the first time, against Al Gore, there was a lot of talk about how it was time, after eight years of that goofy and oversexed Bill Clinton, to put some grownups in charge of things – you know, the serious people who would bring dignity and a certain kind of calm order to the White House. The younger Bush didn’t exactly fit the bill, but he would be surrounded by the adults in the room, especially the deadly serious Dick Cheney. Vote for the serious people, not the goofballs. Yes, that didn’t exactly work out. Seriousness can be deadly. As noted, there’s always something else going on. Still, a new way of dismissing your opponents had been born. You simply say they’re not serious. You need say no more. You’d be a fool to say more. That alone will do the trick. It works every time.

We’ll see if it works this time, or if people start to giggle, as we now are in the middle of all the talk about what to do about that fiscal cliff thing. The question, once again, seems to be seriousness, and Kevin Drum offers the current state of play, with the definition of how the Republicans and almost all the press see things:

Serious (ser’ ee uhs) adj. any of a group of proposals that immiserates large numbers of ordinary people, either immediately or in the future, via cuts to broad-based social welfare programs.

Unserious (un ser’ ee uhs) adj. any proposal that slightly inconveniences rich people via modest tax increases or annoys military contractors via small cuts to the Defense Department.

Anyone who wants to cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid is, by definition, serious, as pain is serious. There’s no free lunch. Anyone who wants to have at least the rich go back to paying taxes at the old rates cannot be serious, because that’s just not fair and is obviously motivated by envy and anger, which is pretty much sour grapes from losers and moochers who didn’t have the smarts or the balls to get ahead in life. In fact, it’s class warfare. The news folks don’t put it exactly that way – they just simply ask Democrats they’ve booked on the shows, that even if their side won the election, shouldn’t everyone share the pain of fixing this problem? If you say that the poor and middle class don’t have to pay up too, how can we take you seriously? They call this objective journalism.

From the Republicans, you get things like this:

House Speaker John Boehner painted a bleak picture Sunday when talking about fiscal cliff negotiations between the White House and Republicans. “Right now I would say we’re nowhere. Period. We’re nowhere. We’ve put a serious offer on the table by putting revenues up there to try to get this question resolved, but the White House has responded with virtually nothing,” Boehner said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Boehner said the reason negotiations are going so poorly is that Obama administration officials – in particular, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – aren’t taking Republicans seriously. Boehner said he was shocked at Geithner’s proposal to Republicans last week.

“I was flabbergasted. I looked at him and I said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ I’ve just never seen anything like it,” Boehner said.

Geithner had proposed a plan which included 1.6 trillion dollars in tax revenue, quite specific and targeted cuts to Medicare, and another fifty billion in stimulus spending, and an expiration of the Bush tax cuts for income over a quarter million a year – and he proposed the debt ceiling be raised automatically each time it was necessary, and the House could pass a resolution objecting to it if they liked. John Boehner would discuss none of that on air, on Fox News, and he said there was no point in his talking with Tim Geithner or Obama about any of it. It just wasn’t serious. There’s no point in talking to silly fools, only to serious people. Maybe that would be like talking to someone back in 2003 or so who thought Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. No, you only talk to serious people. It’s the same sort of thing.

To recap, the Republicans are saying it’s not their problem – at the stroke of midnight, as the year ends, as agreed, everyone’s taxes will jump up and automatic drastic cuts in spending kick in, sending the economy into deep recession or worse, with misery for all. Of course the markets will crash too – and the Republican position is that Obama had damned well better come up with something quick, something that satisfies them and does not raise taxes on the rich by even one penny. Maybe, if they feel like it, if they decide it’s serious in some way, the House Republicans will pass that and send it to the Senate and then onto Obama to be signed – or maybe not. Obama, on the other hand, is still saying he ran on letting the tax cuts for the top two percent expire so the rich pay a bit more, and, by the way, he won, and, by the way, all the polling shows that two-thirds of the public agrees with this, and has for a year or more. The answer to that is that’s just not serious. They may have lost the election, but everyone knows that they alone are the serious people. Look at the definitions. As for any deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, they’d rather have Obama take the blame for ruining those programs – as more than two thirds of Americans oppose those cuts, even more than two-thirds of Republicans do. They can say Obama is just not serious unless he cuts those, and then when he does, if he does, they can hammer him for doing that. In short, they can propose nothing. All they have to do is say Obama isn’t serious and not one word more. This sort of thing has worked for the last twelve or more years. It will work now.

That’s an interesting theory, but Obama turned the tables on them. He wasn’t supposed to say look, if you guys are the serious people, prove it – tell everyone what the hell you propose. Proclaiming this or that just isn’t serious, and then smiling and walking away, just won’t cut it. If you say everyone knows what’s a really serious approach to all this, then pray tell, do explain what everyone already knows – just for the record. Put up or shut up.

This shouldn’t have worked. The Republicans should have shrugged and pointed once again to Obama, sneering that he just wasn’t a serious person. But somehow it did work. Public opinion seemed to turn, perhaps because enough people are frightened of what seems to be coming, or maybe they remember all the dismissive talk about who wasn’t really serious about Saddam Hussein and all the rest. Too many people had been scammed. Dismissing someone or something as just not serious isn’t good enough anymore. You have to explain what serious is, not scoff at what it isn’t.

The trap was sprung:

House Republican leaders on Monday made a counteroffer to President Obama in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations that would cut $2.2 trillion from the deficit with a combination of spending cuts, entitlement reforms and $800 billion in new tax revenue.

Republican officials said their 10-year plan contained more deficit reduction than the offer the White House presented last week while standing firm against Obama’s demand to increase tax rates on the wealthy.

The White House quickly panned the offer, saying it contained “nothing new” and did not “meet the test of balance.”

The Republican offer came in the form of a three-page letter to the White House signed by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and four other senior Republicans, including Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the party’s just-defeated vice presidential nominee.

The details are clear – make it so no one gets Medicare until they’re sixty-seven, as they can wait two more years for that, and end the cost-of-living increases for Social Security, and let the payroll tax return to normal, as those earning less than a hundred grand a year can afford to pay forty or fifty bucks more a paycheck into Social Security and Medicare, and let’s do far more cuts than anyone imagined, and let’s keep taxes low on the very rich, or make them even lower – we can make it all up by closing a few loopholes here and there, even if it’s hard to say which loopholes those would be. We can worry about that later.

Given the results of the election this may be political suicide, and additionally it gave Team Obama an opening to address seriousness:

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer rejected Speaker of the House John Boehner’s counter-proposal to avert the fiscal cliff in a statement to reporters Monday afternoon.

“The Republican letter released today does not meet the test of balance,” Pfeiffer said. “In fact, it actually promises to lower rates for the wealthy and sticks the middle class with the bill. Their plan includes nothing new and provides no details on which deductions they would eliminate, which loopholes they will close or which Medicare savings they would achieve.”

Let’s get serious:

Independent analysts who have looked at plans like this one have concluded that middle class taxes will have to go up to pay for lower rates for millionaires and billionaires. While the President is willing to compromise to get a significant, balanced deal and believes that compromise is readily available to Congress, he is not willing to compromise on the principles of fairness and balance that include asking the wealthiest to pay higher rates. President Obama believes – and the American people agree – that the economy works best when it is grown from the middle out, not from the top down. Until the Republicans in Congress are willing to get serious about asking the wealthiest to pay slightly higher tax rates, we won’t be able to achieve a significant, balanced approach to reduce our deficit our nation needs.

The counter was this:

Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said the burden now falls on the White House to provide a plan that can pass Congress.

“Republicans have once again offered a responsible, balanced plan to avoid the fiscal cliff, and the White House has once again demonstrated how unreasonable it has become,” he said, “If the President is rejecting this middle ground offer, it is now his obligation to present a plan that can pass both chambers of Congress.”

So who is serious here? All the Republicans did was show their sole objective is to protect the rich while at the same time angering their base:

Heritage Action, long a thorn in the side of the House Republican leadership, told its members in an email that Boehner was asking his “members to go back on their promise not to raise taxes on the American people” by putting $800 billion in new revenue into the mix of the negotiations to avert the fiscal cliff. …

FreedomWorks, which was founded by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey, called the move to boot conservatives off certain committees a “remarkably hostile act by leadership.”

“FreedomWorks is urging all members to call Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office and urge him to stop the fiscal conservative purge,” FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe said in a statement. “The enemies of fiscal sanity are tax-and-spend politicians, not public servants willing to say ‘enough is enough.’” …

Heritage Action accused Boehner of trying to find “creative ways to fund” President Barack Obama’s “big-government agenda.”

There’s much more at the link – Boehner kicked a lot of Tea Party types off several finance committees. There’s blood in the water.

Boehner got skunked here, and the New York Times’ editorial board kicks him when he’s down:

If Mr. Boehner had used a calculator, for example, he would have discovered it is impossible to produce $800 billion in revenue from eliminating deductions without severely curtailing the deduction for charitable donations, which is vital to the nonprofit sector. Doing so without limiting the charitable deduction would inevitably raise taxes on the middle class, as nonpartisan analysts have concluded, and would have a much greater effect on the upper middle class than on the very rich.

The only way to produce the necessary revenue is to combine some limits on deductions with an end to the Bush tax cuts on the rich, and Mr. Obama, fortunately, has been adamant he will not consider any plan that does not do so. The Boehner letter, by contrast, actually advocates lowering rates, suggesting that Republicans are still clinging to the notion, rejected by voters, that was put forward by Mitt Romney.

Raising the Medicare eligibility age hurts working-class Americans unable to work to 67, and it is likely to increase health care costs. But when you are simply tossing out random ideas, as Republicans seem to be doing, those kinds of long-term implications don’t matter. Monday’s offer may simply be intended to show the most conservative Republicans that their leaders fought before the compromises to come. For everyone else, they show a party unwilling to approach the bargaining with responsibility.

And, from Jonathan Karl, word that it only gets stranger:

Republicans are seriously considering a Doomsday Plan if fiscal cliff talks collapse entirely. It’s quite simple: House Republicans would allow a vote on extending the Bush middle class tax cuts (the bill passed in August by the Senate) and offer the President nothing more: no extension of the debt ceiling, nothing on unemployment, nothing on closing loopholes. Congress would recess for the holidays and the president would face a big battle early in the year over the debt ceiling.

Two senior Republican elected officials tell me this doomsday plan is becoming the most likely scenario. A top GOP House leadership aide confirms the plan is under consideration, but says Speaker Boehner has made no decision on whether to pursue it.

Under one variation of this Doomsday Plan, House Republicans would allow a vote on extending only the middle class tax cuts and Republicans, to express disapproval at the failure to extend all tax cuts, would vote “present” on the bill, allowing it to pass entirely on Democratic votes.

What? Jonathan Chait looks into this:

So, yeah, Republicans would still have things to fight over. Obama is going to want measures to reduce unemployment. Republicans can dangle those. Obama is also going to want to not destroy the credit rating of the U.S. government for no good reason, and Republicans will threaten to do that, though it’s not clear that Obama is going to submit to another blackmailing on this.

But Republicans will also need Obama to sign a law canceling out the huge defense spending cuts scheduled for next year. If Obama is starting out with a trillion in higher revenue in his pocket (through expiration of the Bush tax cuts on the rich), and the extension of the middle-class tax cuts have largely taken the threat of a recession off the table, then he’ll still be negotiating from a position of strength.

There’s also this:

Interestingly, Republicans also appear preoccupied with avoiding the atmosphere of surrender. Karl reports that Republicans are considering having their members vote “present” on an extension of the middle-class tax cuts, thus allowing it to pass with Democratic votes. What is the difference? That way, they haven’t done anything that could be called a vote to raise taxes. Instead, they have stood aside and allowed Democrats to raise taxes. This would be in keeping with the strategy hinted at by Grover Norquist. Norquist has urged Republicans to negotiate in public rather than in secret, which is obviously ludicrous, and has urged them not to put their “fingerprints on the murder weapon,” meaning to openly endorse any deal.

What possible difference could there be between allowing something to happen and voting for it?

Who knows? Maybe that proves you’re serious. It’s just that the good old days are gone. You can no longer sneer at the other guy and say he’s just not serious, saying not a word more, making you the serious person, by the simple process of elimination. That was only bullying anyway. Stand up to bullies and they fold. When they say they’re serious get suspicious – and go ahead, giggle right out loud. Sometimes that’s quite appropriate. People really can get serious about the oddest things.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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