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Questo articolo è stato pubblicato il 27 dicembre 2012 alle ore 20:29.


BERKELEY – Unless something unexpected happens, the United States’ many legislated reductions in taxes over the past 12 years – all of which have been explicitly temporary – will expire simultaneously at the start of 2013. American tax rates will revert overnight to their Clinton-era levels.

Some of these reductions were implemented to fight what was seen four years ago as a temporary downturn. Although their supporters wanted to make them permanent, claiming that they were temporary allowed for the circumvention of procedural requirements in the legislative process that Democrats had created in a vain effort to guarantee fiscal sanity.

The immediate increase in tax rates is only part of the story. At the same time, automatic reductions in the defense budget and discretionary domestic spending – agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans in the summer of 2011 – will take effect.

Couple these tax increases and spending cuts with the provisions of Obamacare, the US health-care reform championed by President Barack Obama, and, as of January 1, 2013, America’s long-run structural budget deficit disappears. The restored tax rates will, for the foreseeable future, be sufficient to support the US defense establishment, the growing US social-insurance system, and a moderate – albeit inadequate and suboptimal – amount of other discretionary federal spending. The US national debt/GDP ratio will be on track to fall from its current level of 75% to 50% by 2035. Moreover, the US will begin running primary budget surpluses – the fiscal balance minus interest payments on existing debt – by 2015.

So why isn’t the prospect of going over the fiscal cliff greeted with enthusiasm? Yes, there will be big spending cuts – which will hit defense contractors, doctors with Medicare patients, and all who benefit from or rely on government discretionary spending – and substantial tax increases. But, to balance the budget in the long run, either taxes have to go up or spending has to go down relative to some baseline, or both.

There are two reasons why deficit hawks are not declaring victory. First, many who call themselves deficit hawks are really spending hawks: they believe that US social insurance is too generous to the unemployed, the disabled, the elderly, and the sick, and that by far the best policy is to cut back on such programs rather than raise taxes to pay for them. But, they fear that calling for spending cuts will be unpopular, unlike, they hope, demands to balance the budget. For them, the problem with the fiscal cliff is that it does not cut spending enough and raises taxes too much.

Second, and more important for those who worry about the US economy’s health, the process is not well-described by the term fiscal cliff. It is, rather, an austerity bomb that hits an economy in which unemployment remains high, the employment-to-population ratio remains horrifyingly low, and there are only feeble signs that the large gap between current and potential output is closing.

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