MARY READY: For now, we are a country of cliff dwellers

Mary Ready, Ready or Not

Remember that scene in Thelma and Louise when the title characters drive their baby blue 1966 convertible Thunderbird off a cliff? I had one of those back in the day, so I have a vivid but disturbing image of the loss of such a classic car, and worse the suicidal end of two human beings. However, these fictional bad girls made a deliberate choice to go off that cliff, and with eyes wide open had their final say about their lives:

Thelma: But, umm, I don't know, you know, something's, like, crossed over in me and I can't go back, I mean I just can’t live like this.

Louise: I know, I know what you mean. Anyway, don't wanna end up on the (expletive deleted) Geraldo show.

Thelma: [with a cliff in front of them and cops behind them] OK, then listen; let's not get caught.

Louise: What're you talkin' about?

Thelma: Let's keep goin'!

Louise: What d'you mean?

Thelma: ...Go.

Louise: You sure?

Thelma: Yeah.

And then there’s the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who, also on the run from the law, make a similar choice:

Butch: I'll jump first.

Sundance: Nope.

Butch: Then you jump first.

Sundance: No, I said!

Butch: What's the matter with you?!

Sundance: I can't swim!

Butch: [laughing] Why, you crazy — the fall'll probably kill ya!

In both cases, a cliff loomed in front of desperate characters, and they made the decision to go over the cliff rather than live in the shadow of impending disaster.

Currently, American citizens are facing a cliff of a different kind, with the consequences also looking pretty dire. However, we don’t get to make the choice. Instead, we’re at the mercy of our elected officials to apply the brakes at the edge of the cliff or plunge us over it all the way to the jagged rocks below. For many months, we’ve been cliff dwellers, awaiting an outcome over which we have no choice.

Like the terms, “trickle down economy,” “fuzzy math,” and “vast right-wing conspiracy,” someone had to think up the term "fiscal cliff." Coined by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in testimony before Congress in February, he predicted "a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases" would occur in January, 2013, if Washington didn't take action. The phrase caught on.

According to the talking heads on various news programs, it’s not certain how financial markets — which have so far shown some measure of stability during the economic drama in Washington — will respond if no solution is found in time.

In a few days, all the George Bush tax cuts expire and $1.2 trillion in unpopular spending cuts are triggered. So-called experts claim the combined economic effect will bring on a recession. A number of other laws, including a payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits, are also scheduled to expire at the end of the year. The President and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, have been at odds over taxes and spending cuts, and Boehner's recent efforts to avoid the cliff failed to earn sufficient GOP support.

Practically all Americans, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, will be impacted. Middle-income households would see an average federal tax increase of almost $2,000. At the same time, spending cuts over the next decade (about $100 billion a year for 10 years) will go into effect.

In 2013, about $50 billion will be cut from defense spending and $50 billion from non-defense discretionary spending, which includes everything from cancer research to law enforcement. The combined tax hikes and spending cuts make up the "fiscal cliff."

So, how will it feel at the bottom of the cliff?

Economists confirm workers will see less money in their first paycheck in 2013, and the long-term unemployed will stop receiving federal benefits. The spending cuts will stifle job growth with an estimated 2.1 million jobs lost in the coming year. That’s the word from George Mason University Center of Regional Analysis. In addition, IRS Commissioner Steven Miller has warned Congress that if it fails to extend the AMT  (Alternative Minimum Tax) patch before it expires, as many as 100 million taxpayers face problems filing their 2012 income tax returns. As a result, the IRS will be delaying returns to wrestle with new tax laws. And doctors with Medicare patients would see payments drop in February.

Ever the optimist, I’m hopeful Congress will solve the cliff problem before Dec. 31, and all this depressing economic prophecy will be “much ado about nothing.” Perhaps, by the time this column is published.

If not, maybe, Thelma, Louise, Butch, and Sundance had the right idea.

Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.