Political Sparring Ahead Of Fiscal Cliff

Host Scott Simon talks with New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera about the efforts to overhaul America's tax system and prospects for reaching a compromise before the end of the year, when automatic tax hikes and spending cuts are set to go into effect.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And we're joined now by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who often joins us to talk about business and the economy. Joe, thanks for being with us.

JOE NOCERA: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Did you hear anything from President Obama or Speaker Boehner that screams deal to you?

NOCERA: As is true of so much of life, the great philosopher Yogi Berra said it best: It's deja vu all over again. This problem is what caused the debt crisis last year, with the president and his supporters saying you have to increase tax rates on the wealthy and the House Republicans saying you cannot raise tax rates on the wealthy and you have to close loopholes. If they don't figure out a way around this, we are going to have the same kind of nail-biting fight that we had last year, which resulted basically in them kicking the can and creating the fiscal cliff.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, do you see room for compromise there. I mean, if you were carving the pie?

NOCERA: Well, here is the problem. The professor who spoke to Ari just before said that if you close loopholes on the wealthy you would collect more tax revenue. That is true. But if you're serious about closing the deficit, that is not enough. It just isn't. It doesn't create enough revenue. And that's where the Democrats have fundamentally been saying if you don't raise rates, then everything else is pointless, because it'll all be on the margins. And that's the problem.

SIMON: The president said, look, we had an election, these issues were central and I won. He said my ideas won. Of course, there's still a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and individual representatives there can say, well, those were the issues in my campaign too and I won. Where does this faceoff, where do they begin to kind of take - grapple with the problem and give some room to each other?

NOCERA: Well, politically, the president does have a stronger hand. He was in fact re-elected. He has not been shy about saying the need to increase the marginal tax rate on the wealthy. And what's more - on the Senate side in particular - a number of Tea Party candidates in places like Missouri, Montana, Ohio, lost to more moderate and in some cases even liberal Democrats. So, the Tea Party has been weakened. It is quite possible to speculate that Grover Nordquist, he of the take the pledge, never to raise taxes, has been weakened. And this is also being done in a lame-duck session - please remember - which means that there are a number of congressmen who can - don't have to worry about re-election and can take their chances on doing what they think is right. So, I do think that the president has a stronger hand this time around.

SIMON: We use that, we've begun to use that term fiscal cliff. Give us your assessment of how dire it is. There's another columnist on your page - Paul Krugman - and I know that you're separate columnists and don't always agree or disagree, for that matter with each other, but he urged President Obama this week to not give in and to risk going over that cliff.

NOCERA: And there is a lot of sentiment towards that among Democrats, who felt like the president gave in too much during the debt ceiling crisis and feel strongly that he has to call out other Republicans if they really want to walk us to the fiscal cliff. The problem is the fiscal cliff would be enormously damaging both to the economy and to the confidence of both consumers, business and even our training partners abroad. It would cause our bonds to lower - their ratings. The rating agencies have already threatened that. It would almost surely raise unemployment to over 9 percent. And the cuts would be so dramatic that they would hurt - you know, the Pentagon would be badly hurt. One of the reasons they created the fiscal cliff is to make it so onerous for both sides that they would be forced to come to agreement. So, here we are, everybody knows how dire the consequences are. Can they agree? That's the central question of our politics right now.

SIMON: Joe Nocera of the New York Times speaking to us from the studios of The Radio Foundation in New York City. Joe, thanks so much for being with us.

NOCERA: Thanks for having me, Scott.

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