No one misses the days of the classic dreary and depressing British films – the black and white social-realism kitchen-sink tales of working-class lost souls, trapped in a world where they had no chance to escape any of the dreariness, ever. Maybe this was a hard and clear-eyed look at the reality of the world as it is, or maybe in the early sixties most thinking people, even if they weren’t trapped in near poverty themselves, were trapped between some sort of general despair and malaise – and angry too. Films reflect the times, and you can make good money by cleverly, or artistically, capturing the zeitgeist. There are lots of ways to show that the world is awful and it’s not going to get any better. The Brits gave us the unrelenting gloom of Look Back in Anger and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and A Taste of Honey and Billy Liar – all part of the British New Wave, films with nothing like heroes at all, and lots of bad sex and abortions, and all those irretrievably broken people too. That such films did so well might be that they were the correct response to the unrelenting absurdity of fifties optimism, a reaction to Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, that cheery and perfect dream world everyone knew wasn’t true and never could be true. In 1960 we also got Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – more of the same common man existential hopelessness – but this time a film with a cool title. Saturday night is for letting it rip, no matter what the cost and damn the consequences, and Sunday morning is when you have to face those consequences, no matter how unfair it all seems. Life’s like that. Hangovers are a bitch, and suddenly you realize that the splitting headache and nausea are the least of your new worries.
No one remembers these films now – existential despair fell out of fashion in the flower-power Age of Aquarius that soon followed, and the characters and settings now seem hopeless dated – but they served their purpose, and it’s odd that we have nothing like them now, just sexy vampires and flawed superheroes and costume dramas, and James Bond once again, and animated toys.
Maybe we don’t need such films anymore. Maybe we now know full well that the world is an awful place and it’s not going to get any better. Why belabor the point? Syria is loading up the chemical weapons to wipe out its own people and there’s rioting in Egypt as their amazing democratic revolution went all sour on them, and our folks are still dying in Afghanistan, being shot dead by the folks we’re training there to run things once we leave. Meanwhile, down in Washington, we’re coming down to the wire on that fiscal cliff thing. The Bush tax cuts will expire and everyone will pay more, removing cash from the money supply and collapsing consumer demand, and automatic severe across-the-board spending cuts will kick in too, slowing a big chunk of economic activity to a halt, unless something is done. Obama is saying keep most of the tax cuts but bump up the tax rates on the rich right now to their previous levels, to give us some revenue for wiggle room. Republicans are saying no – keep the rich paying less, or have them pay even lower taxes, or the whole deal is off and we’ll go over that cliff, with misery for everyone. Their thought is that what will give us some revenue for wiggle room is cutting spending on Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, drastically, as all that feckless spending on the working poor and the unemployed and the elderly and the disabled is what is really killing the economy – which means they never watched any of those working-class British New Wave films. Obama won’t budge, as he won the election on protecting the weak and asking those with lots to chip in a bit more, and because all the polling shows that more than two thirds of the country agrees with him. Even rank-and-file Republicans who were asked about it agree with him. The polls showed that long before the election and show that now, but the Republicans won’t budge. Raising taxes on anyone at all is always the wrong thing to do – period.
Thus we have a standoff. We are going off that cliff. Who needs another Tony Richardson film to show how dismal things are now? The working-class blokes always get screwed. There’s no hope for them. There never is.
At least we still have Saturday Night Live – our let-it-rip time – and they just had a go at the absurdity of the fiscal cliff negotiations. Watch the video with the guy playing Obama and the guy playing John Boehner. Obama does most of the talking:
I agreed there will be no tax increases – I repeat, zero tax increases. Now why would I do that? I mean, I won the election, I have the leverage. Why give in? Well, simply put, I felt sorry for this man.
The guy playing Boehner look all woebegone and Obama explains why:
This man, this grown man, was pushed into the congressional ladies washroom naked from the waist down. They held him down and took his pants. And, he had to stand there, in front of his female colleagues, one hand covering his genitals, the other try to cover his butt-crack, neither hand succeeding.
Yes, John Boehner is getting so much grief from his own party for even hinting at compromise, or for even talking to Obama, that this poor man, this good man, is now beyond depressed. The guy playing Obama says he is so outraged by that and feels so sorry for him that he’s decided to abolish Social Security entirely, to dissolve it right now – which hints at the absurdity of it all. The guys at the top protect each other. The working-class blokes are the ones who get screwed. There’s no hope for them.
That was Saturday night, and then there was Sunday morning:
President Barack Obama met with Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner on Sunday at the White House to negotiate ways to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” according to White House officials and a congressional aide.
The two sides declined to provide further details about the unannounced meeting. Obama and Boehner aides used the same language to describe it.
Actually that was Sunday afternoon, but that’s close enough. Each side issued identical press releases. We talked. Don’t ask about it. We won’t tell you anything.
That may be a good sign, or a sign that someone is going to get screwed here and neither one wants to talk about just who that might be. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein explains:
Right now, the fiscal cliff negotiations are proceeding on two tracks.
One track includes the press releases, public statements and legislative tactics the two parties are deploying to prove the purity of their faith and their commitment to beating the other side to a bloody pulp. Watch these closely and it’s easy to get depressed. The parties are, by turns, angry, disappointed, petty, inane and vengeful. “There isn’t a progress report,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner sighed Friday, “because there’s no progress to report.”
Still, Klein sees a deal taking shape:
Talk to smart folks in Washington, and here’s what they think will happen: The final tax deal will raise rates a bit, giving Democrats a win, but not all the way back to 39.6 percent, giving Republicans a win. That won’t raise enough revenue on its own, so it will be combined with some policy to cap tax deductions, perhaps at $25,000 or $50,000, with a substantial phase-in and an exemption for charitable contributions.
The harder question is what Republicans will get on the spending side of the deal. But even that’s not such a mystery. There will be a variety of nips and tucks to Medicare, including more cost-sharing and decreases in provider payments, and the headline Democratic concession is likely to be that the Medicare eligibility age rises from 65 to 67.
Ah, the working-class blokes who have to retire at sixty-five, or choose to, will have two years where they’ll still have to buy their own healthcare insurance on the open market, if they can find it, and if they can afford it. Klein says New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait accurately summarizes the White House thinking, as Klein then summarizes:
They see it as having “weirdly disproportionate symbolic power,” as it’s not a huge (or smart) cut to Medicare benefits, and most of the pain will be blunted by the Affordable Care Act. But Republicans and self-styled deficit hawks see it as a big win. And Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who staunchly opposes raising the retirement age, has stopped well short of ruling it out.
In short, if these guys want to hurt the vulnerable – those that the Brits would call working-class blokes – give them their scalp, their trophy. It will make them feel so much better and won’t hurt those vulnerable folks ALL that much, which sounds a bit like the Saturday Night Live skit. David Dayan, on the other hand, is not amused:
Since Jon Chait has never met a concession he didn’t like, he comes out with an endorsement of raising the Medicare eligibility age as part of a long-term deficit deal. So his cover for what is universally regarded as a terrible idea surely led deficit scolds seeking to use the problem to weaken the safety net to give each other high-fives.
Let’s look at Chait’s reasoning. I would probably start with the fact that he’s not 64 or 65. My parents are, and until my dad reached Medicare in November, they were paying $2,500 a month on the private market for health insurance. So I’ll be happy to provide him with their phone number so he can tell them how it’s “tolerable” for them to spend two years more than they expected doing that.
But soft! Here are his actual reasons. One, Democrats have to accept concessions (that’s always a good strategic place from which to begin a negotiation!), and the scolds seem to like raising the eligibility age. So let’s give ’em what they want. This is a bizarrely content-free assertion. The phrase “If Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles wanted you to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it?” springs to mind. Second, he thinks that Republicans will somehow forget that this only raises $100 billion, at most, over 10 years, and will then drop any demands to hit a particular number in the negotiations.
Ed Kilgore tells Dayan to calm down:
I do think it’s kind of important that progressives allow each other a bit of liberty in discussions about big fiscal issues: after all, even the Right-Wing Noise Machine is in a bit of disarray on the subject at the moment. I know some people think resisting anything that affects Social Security or Medicare benefits is the ultimate Red Line that cannot be crossed. Personally, my own fear is that in defending that Red Line, congressional Democrats will wind up making concessions on Medicaid and other low-income programs that in my opinion are more morally compelling than keeping Medicare precisely the way it is today.
Maybe my fears are misguided, or maybe I just don’t share the obsession of some liberals in keeping Medicare pristine as a potential model for a universal single-payer health care system somewhere in the distant future, even if that means today’s poor folks have to suffer as a lower priority.
But we ought to be able to talk about these things calmly…
Yeah, folks can buy health insurance on those new state insurance exchanges, which all Republican governors are refusing to implement. They are simply refusing billions of dollars to help the poor and vulnerable, just to make Obamacare fail. Okay, let’s talk about these things calmly, as Dayan does:
The one thing we know will be a side effect of increasing the Medicare eligibility age is that insurance premiums will skyrocket. It will make Medicare more expensive because they lose relatively healthy 65 and 66 year-olds from their risk pool – and it will make private insurance more expensive because they add relatively sick 65 and 66 year-olds to their risk pool. Insurers hate the idea for just this reason. As a result, everyone’s premiums will rise, and cost-shifting will ensue from the government to its citizens.
People with busy lives don’t differentiate between what provisions in health care can be attributed to the Affordable Care Act and what provisions come from a fiscal deal. They’ll just know that the ACA got implemented in 2014, and as a result their insurance rates jumped. It’s maybe the worst strategic plan in the world to raise the Medicare age to bolster support for the Affordable Care Act by raising how much everyone has to spend on health insurance, particularly those who don’t get subsidies, the same “significant chunk of middle-class voters who have grown accustomed to the assumption that they will be able to afford health care.”
At the Washington Monthly there’s also Adele Stan:
Raise the eligibility age and PEOPLE WILL DIE.
No, that’s not an exaggeration, and the failure of certain wonks to take that into consideration speaks to their isolation from everyday people, even the everyday people who provide services to them, such as grocery-store clerks, waitresses, and construction workers in right-to-work states. These are people who cannot wait until they’re 67 for the full complement of Medicare benefits. Many of them are people who will wind up paying the individual mandate penalty in Obamacare, because even if purchased through an exchange, the monthly premium will be more than they can afford.
Digby (Heather Parton) adds this:
These are real human beings we’re talking about. I’m one of them. Healthcare wonks who know what they’re talking about understand that there are plenty of people at my age who are already getting killed in health care premiums which the calculators show aren’t going to be helped all that much by the Obamacare subsidies. I’ve just been praying I could make it to 65. I really don’t want to have to hold on any longer and tons of people in ill health are in even worse shape than I am.
And by the way, the only way this whole thing works is to have it take place quickly, no long phase-in. So it will hit people like me.
No one needs a series of gritty black-and-white dismal working-class films to see what’s going on here, and Matthew Yglesias can only offer this:
The only logic to there being any acceptability to raising the eligibility age, after all, is the idea that the Affordable Care Act framework is an acceptable alternative to Medicare coverage.
Now people will disagree about whether or not that’s the case, but we can all see why the Obama administration would be inclined to think that it is the case. The problem is that the Affordable Care Act framework is something that’s still facing massive resistance from the Republican Party. The Speaker of the House has pledged to use every tool at his disposal to repeal it. A very large share of states, initially at least, are not going to agree to the Medicaid expansion provisions that are necessary to achieve the ACA coverage goals. And virtually every Republican governor in the country is refusing to set up a state-run health insurance exchange, and leading voices on the right think there are a variety of legal and political technicalities they can still exploit to prevent its implementation.
Under the circumstances, denying people Medicare eligibility would constitute a substantial step backwards from Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. And, indeed, by raising the cost of exchange premiums it would make ACA implementation even harder. Those are not concessions that you make in exchange for tax revenue. After all, what is the revenue for if not the construction and stabilization of the welfare state?
So he proposes a different kind of swap:
Something like raising the Medicare eligibility age in exchange for the creation of a strong public option or a Medicare buy-in of some kind – in other words, a spending reduction measure that conservatives like in exchange for a spending reduction measure that liberals like. As far as I know, nothing along those lines is under discussion. But that’s a deal that would let both parties walk away from the table feeling like they’d achieved something. Conservatives would have reduced the fiscal cost of the welfare state, while progressives would have strengthened the underpinnings of the Affordable Care Act. You could imagine plenty of other possibilities. But the baseline for any of them would have to be that the ACA is going to be there to pick up the pieces.
What are low-income seniors in the South supposed to do when Medicaid isn’t expanded to cover them, they’re not eligible for subsidies, and now Medicare’s been yanked out from under them? Turning around and saying in response “at least rich people are paying more taxes!” doesn’t cut it.
Yeah, but it would make for a fine gritty movie about how the world is awful and it’s not going to get any better, a new Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, in a new setting. All those low-income seniors in the South voted for their favorite Republicans, letting it rip, and now they have to deal with the hangover, the splitting headache and nausea, and far worse.
Adele Stan, however, also suggests that maybe Team Obama sees what’s going on here and may not agree to raise the Medicare age after all:
Among the Very Serious People who sometimes admit me to their enclaves, strictly with a non-voting observer status, the talk has now turned to, well, if raising the Medicare eligibility age is off the table, then what should Obama offer Boehner in exchanges for raising the tax rates on the wealthy? After all, you gotta give the guy some cover, the reasoning goes.
As in the Saturday Night Live skit, you could, as an alternative, to give them cover, simply abolish Social Security entirely, but Kevin Drum offers this:
Can I make a suggestion? How about if John Boehner just tells us? Is there really some reason that Obama is supposed to throw up an endless succession of trial balloons, trying to find one that will make the Tea Party caucus happy? If Boehner really wants to slash $600 billion from Medicare – which I frankly doubt – then let’s hear from him how he wants to do it. It’s his baby, after all. I, for one, would like Boehner to stop moaning about how the entire past week has been wasted and instead just tell us what he wants. The guessing game is getting old.
Drum also adds this:
Why do I doubt that Boehner really wants to cut $600 billion from Medicare? Well, you can do that either by cutting provider payments or by cutting benefits. Obamacare has already cut provider payments by $716 billion, and I frankly doubt that Boehner or anyone else really wants to slash them very much further at this point. And cutting benefits is really unpopular. If you include current retirees, you can kiss off your next election, but if you exclude them you won’t have any effect on the deficit. It’s not impossible to square this circle, but it’s a pretty tough nut.
Who knows what John Boehner wants? He’ll get something, and we’ll all look back in anger. It’s like in those classic dreary and depressing British films of the early sixties – there’s the world of working-class blokes where nothing ever gets better, ever, which isn’t John Boehner’s world, and sometimes isn’t even Obama’s. There’s despair and malaise there, and seething anger too – and, as in those films, that really doesn’t matter much in the end. Saturday night you let it rip and Sunday morning you pay the price. What the toffs in power do, a million miles away from your hardscrabble losing life, is mysterious, if you think of it at all. These days no one wants to watch a movie about that. We all live it.