Growing up in the raw new suburbs postwar of Pittsburgh – the last good years before the city started its slow collapse – was anything but surreal. It was all real enough – cars had big fins, Ed Sullivan was on television every Sunday night, Ike was president and what they taught you in school was right and true and useful, and the grandparents still spoke Slovak. That wasn’t surreal. The story of how they ended up over here was the American story, after all. Everything made sense – even taking the streetcar downtown to buy clarinet reeds, because the school band was a big deal. There was nothing archly ironic about it at all. James Dean was that troubled rebel, without any real cause to rebel, in a Hollywood movie. That was interesting, but there were no such young men in Pittsburgh. Everything was as it should be.
It may be that kids just don’t get irony, which makes any concept of the surreal impossible for them. You have to grow up and leave – like Andy Warhol, another Slovak kid from Pittsburgh. He fully embraced deep irony and the puzzling surreal later, and elsewhere. Had he stayed in Pittsburgh he’d probably have ended up painting houses – but few of us stayed, and all of us grew up. And now it’s the last Sunday in February here in Hollywood, this afternoon, outside the window, the Goodyear Blimp was making slow orbits over the red carpet stuff at the Oscars, a few blocks east. Then the big full moon rose slowly over the Griffith Park Observatory in the distance – like in the last scene in that James Dean movie filmed right there – and now sails high in the dead black sky as the stretch limos jam the street on the Sunset Strip down the block as the “after” parties begin – the Vanity Fair thing at the 1929 deco hotel and Elton John’s party down at the Pacific Design Center and so on. No one gets into those, or only the impossible people do – the beyond-famous stars of this and that.
It’s all quite surreal, but then Andy Warhol had that covered – “I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.”
It’s easy to see where he was going with this. Embrace the absurd. It’s the only way to deal with the surreal world that everyone discovers sooner or later. Grow up. Nothing much, when examined, makes much sense. What they taught you in school, about what is right and true and useful, really isn’t. Deal with it. We’re not in Pittsburgh anymore – or Kansas if you prefer.
That’s okay. Over the next several days they’ll tear down and cart away all the Oscar stuff over on Hollywood Boulevard – the pavilions and bleachers and lights – and roll up all that red carpet and put it in storage until next year. Things will return to normal, or what passes for normal out here. It’s just that once you get the feeling that everything is kind of surreal, it’s hard to shake that feeling – and then you develop that vague fear that surrealism has nothing to do with Hollywood at all. It’s everywhere. Last year’s elections were bad enough, with those strange candidates talking endlessly about legitimate rape and how women’s lady-parts really work in spite of what mere science says. They lost, and except for the House, the Republicans lost big, and now seem to be falling apart – no longer wanting to be the “stupid party” but unable to agree on what’s smart – doubling-down on the Tea Party stuff or trying to seem all welcoming and cooperative and reasonable. They can’t decide, and in the meantime we ended up with a government filled with thrill-seekers. Everything now comes down to the wire – like last year’s vote to raise the debt ceiling, so the nation could pay its bills, for all the stuff that Congress had actually authorized and had been done. That led to the sequester thing. It was a poison pill. The Democrats didn’t want every social and educational program crippled or destroyed, and surely the Republicans didn’t want the military eviscerated. The idea was that the prospect of such cuts would get each side to talk to the other side and work something out – no one wanted Armageddon on these matters. But it didn’t work out that way – no one really talked at all, except to endlessly sneer at each other. That was surreal, and now those cuts are coming.
Slate’s John Dickerson puts it this way:
We are headed into the peak week of sequestration insanity. The across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration are set to take effect on March 1. Here’s a simple rule for getting through the next few days: If you’re talking about sequestration, you’re doing it wrong. Sequestration was created to focus minds on the Big Thing. So if you’re talking obsessively about the sequestration, it means you aren’t thinking about the thing that you were supposed to be focused on.
Ah, this is what you were supposed to be focused on:
The two parties need to come to an agreement on how to spur economic growth to spread prosperity and reduce the budget deficit. The president believes growth comes from a balance of tax increases, investment, and spending reductions. Republicans believe growth comes through lower taxes and spending reductions, which in turn will spur companies to hire and invest. The president believes that taxes should increase as a matter of fairness because the system is tilted in favor of the wealthy and well-connected. Republicans believe that the federal government is already taking an unfair amount of taxes from everyone.
That’s a pretty good summary of the real issues, but no one wants to deal with those:
Even if this is obvious, it’s very hard to get people to focus on the Big Thing, so lawmakers tried to come up with a mechanism to center people’s thinking. They placed a big hairy monster outside the door to keep everyone focused on the Big Thing, and they named this monster Sequestration.
The problem is that once you create a big hairy monster to scare people into doing the right thing, or at least into doing something, they tend to want to deal with the monster and nothing else:
That means that right now the public debate is irrelevant. Even worse, the public debate has become a glittery multiweek jamboree dedicated to displaying the madness that puts us in our current budgetary predicament. It is as if faced with a drinking problem, we decided to engage in all of the behavior that led to the binges, hangovers, and blackouts in the first place.
That debate has taken some odd turns, and Dickerson reviews all the back-and-forth about whose idea this was in the first place. That’s complicated, and irrelevant:
The president and his aides at first tried to deny that they invented sequestration (mostly false!), but it is clear that the president and his team proposed the idea. Instead of trying to weasel out and blame the idea on the Republicans, the president should own it: Yes, it was my idea to create a monster to force all of us to focus on the Big Thing, and the fact that you still won’t focus is the proof that it was necessary to create it. But President Obama won’t do this because the monster is ready to break through the door, and the president doesn’t want to be blamed for the wreckage.
But if it’s obvious the president came up with the idea, it’s also obvious that it doesn’t matter who came up with it. First, the Big Thing matters. Remember: focus. Second, a majority of Republicans voted for sequestration. Once everyone agrees to order the monster from Acme and take off his chains, it doesn’t matter who suggested it first. Everyone agreed.
Dickerson offers more detail, and links, but if he’s right you can ignore those. Whose idea was this sequester thing? No one cares, except Bob Woodward – who says he can prove it was all the White House’s idea. You see, in return for raising the debt ceiling, Republicans wanted some kind of automatic trigger that would force everyone to negotiate a future reduction in the deficit, and the only thing Obama’s budget wonks could come up with was the sequester. They suggested that and both parties then voted for it. Except that Woodward claims that Obama betrayed the Republicans, as Woodward says Obama always does, treating them unfairly and with appalling disrespect, as he notes here:
The final deal reached between Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in 2011 included an agreement that there would be no tax increases in the sequester… So when the president asks that a substitute for the Sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts. His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made.
Did Obama move the goal posts? Is he a liar who never keeps his word, as Woodward claims here and had always claimed? That’s what Woodward claimed in his recent book on the original debt ceiling negotiations, where Boehner is the noble hero and Obama the dastardly villain. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein points out that the American people actually moved the goal posts – all the polling shows the public agrees to Obama’s balanced approach and we had an election about that very thing, and Obama won handily – and Brian Beutler and Dave Weigel agree that Woodward is being very odd here. It is getting surreal. Woodward is running around screaming that Obama is a liar who betrays everyone, screaming that over and over. It’s almost as if Woodward misses his glory days, when he brought down Nixon singlehandedly, or so he must imagine. That’s how it happened in the movie – but that was Robert Redford playing Woodward. It doesn’t get any more surreal than that.
Kevin Drum tries to make some sense of this:
This is just damn peculiar. Even phrased the way Woodward did, it’s obvious that these aren’t the same things. The fact that there were no tax increases in the sequester – i.e., in the mechanism used to goad both sides into a future deal – has nothing to do with what the two sides agreed would be in the substitute for the sequester. The details of the substitute were obviously a subject for future negotiation. …
I’m perplexed by Woodward these days. He really seems to have some kind of weird jones against the Obama White House. I can’t quite figure out where it comes from.
Perhaps this is no more than Watergate nostalgia, but it is fun to watch Woodward and Klein have at each other in the pages of the Washington Post. Things have changed since Watergate. Klein basically says Woodward is full of shit, because Woodward doesn’t really understand what actually was happening in the country. That’s fine, but America wants to know what’s going to happen with all the services government provides at the end of the week. Instead they get to watch a flame-war between two generations of reporters at a famous newspaper, in an age when newspapers are dying anyway. That’s about as helpful as staring at one of Andy Warhol/s paintings of a soup can.
Dickerson notes that’s also beside the point:
The real point of sequestration was to keep everyone focused on the Big Thing: how to get growth, deficit reduction, and fairness from a divided government in a time of scarcity. That’s still the point, which means if we want to make progress, we shouldn’t talk about sequestration – we should talk about the solutions for slaying that monster.
Maybe growth, deficit reduction, and fairness cannot be balanced, but it’s something to work on. The rest is nonsense:
We know that averting sequestration was always the important point because it was built into sequestration agreement itself. When the monster was taken off the chain, lawmakers formed a Committee to Stay Focused and called it the “supercommittee.” It was supposed to come up with something – anything – that would keep the monster at bay. The committee was made up of stout fellows who had demonstrated in tests of strength and cable-show appearances that they could stay focused.
Alas, the Committee to Stay Focused did not stay focused. It failed to come up with an alternative to sequestration, but that didn’t change the task: how to avoid the monster through an agreement. Given that this remains the task at this hour, it is dire indeed that a new debate has erupted over the makeup of the monster. That’s what this recent fight about whether taxes were ever a part of sequestration is about.
It was absurd:
Democrats are trying very hard to prove that Republicans and Bob Woodward are wrong. It’s an argument they don’t need to win, and if we want to stay focused, we don’t need to engage in the argument either. The fight is irrelevant: Determining whether taxes were a part of sequestration is like arguing how many arms the monster has – and it has nothing to do with the Big Thing.
Were tax increases among the things that were considered as a part of the plan to avoid the monster? Yes. The sequestration replacement could be about taxes, spending, or magic beans. Various Republicans and Democrats suggested various alternatives that included taxes. Most Republicans objected to including taxes as a part of the sequestration replacement, which is exactly what they were supposed to do. They were supposed to have a philosophical disagreement focused on the Big Thing.
We should get back to that quickly – before the monster arrives.
In short, enough of this surreal nonsense – it’s time to get real. Or Dickerson is all wrong, as his Slate colleague, Matthew Yglesias, offers an alternative view:
The truth is that this is by far the most boring budget crisis of the Obama years, and to call the political posturing around it kabuki is an insult to a historic Japanese theatrical tradition. Unlike the last couple of debt ceiling fights, the fiscal cliff, the 2010 lame duck, or even the underrated 2012 payroll tax holiday extension, there’s no drama here because the parties aren’t actually negotiating. They’re not even pretending to negotiate. They’re just talking.
Yglesias contends that the Sequester itself doesn’t really matter at all:
When the sequester hits on March 1, nothing much happens. The cuts take effect, but agencies have been expecting them for months and are prepared to slow down their pace of outlays. The legislation creating the sequester back in 2011 deliberately minimized the amount of discretion that agency managers have over how to allocate cuts. But even an across-the-board cut applied to every program doesn’t imply an exact equal reduction in the amount of spending each and every day or even week. For a few weeks, any halfway competent agency is going to be able to keep things running more or less as they have been recently. Big shortfalls in services would only show up later down the road.
And the reason it doesn’t matter that much is that a much bigger deadline looms. On March 27 the Continuing Resolution that funds the overall discretionary operations of the federal government runs out.
That’s the real monster here:
When that happens, it’s lights out – quite literally. There are some exceptions for emergency personnel and entitlement programs (think Medicare) keep functioning, but when the CR expires, the government shuts down. All “non-essential” federal employees are put on furlough, and programs simply stop functioning. The National Parks will close down, and the Centers for Disease Control won’t track infections. Visa and passport applications won’t be processed. Nor will new applications for disability benefits. Regulatory agencies will take a break.
A government shutdown’s something we haven’t seen since Jan. 6, 1996, when then-President Bill Clinton and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich patched up their budget disagreements. It looked very close to happening back in 2011 when flush-with-victory House Republicans initially seemed intent on pressing demands on the Obama administration that the president would never accept.
It didn’t happen then, but we might not be so lucky this time:
Ultimately, John Boehner and his troops agreed to settle for less than they’d set out to obtain. That meant a $39 billion, one-year cut in discretionary spending, but no “policy riders” on abortion, no defunding of NPR, etc. Team GOP pocketed that win, deciding they could come back for more when the national debt was scheduled to run up against its statutory limit in summer 2011. That debt ceiling crisis did, indeed, result in substantial additional spending cuts.
The 2013 calendar is reversed. The debt ceiling fight happened early in the year, and the Obama administration – by standing firm and refusing to negotiate – got through it without giving up anything. Just a few weeks earlier they’d won substantial tax increases as part of the fiscal cliff drama. That’s left Republicans craving a win, and craving a fight.
Yglesias sees the odds of a government shutdown as quite high now, with some caveats:
The good news is that the tough negotiations that’ll be needed to either avert or else end a government shutdown provide ample opportunity to resolve the problems associated with the sequester. For starters, however the appropriations dispute is resolved it’ll end up superseding sequestration in terms of how much money is spent overall.
The other aspect of sequestration is that it doesn’t just cut spending; it cuts it in a very inflexible way. Agencies are supposed to cut each “activity” they undertake by the same amount rather than setting priorities. When tried in the past, this has led to such absurdities as a mandate to “scrape five percent less poop” off each navigational buoy in the Chesapeake Bay. It works that way specifically because sequestration was supposed be onerous, in order to encourage Congress to agree on deficit reduction. But Congress could easily grant agencies more flexibility about how to allocate the cuts. Once an agreement is reached on spending levels, sticking with inflexibility is pointless and won’t give either side any leverage for anything.
There’s no guarantee that Congress will do the right thing and let agencies allocate their money more rationally, but there’s no reason not to.
Yes, do scrape five percent less poop off each navigational buoy in the Chesapeake Bay – that’s surreal, and what kicks in on the first day of March. And then on March 27 the government shuts down. What are these people thinking? The surrealism of Hollywood is preferable. How did Warhol put it? I love Hollywood? Everybody’s plastic, but I love plastic? I want to be plastic? At least out here they know they’re plastic.