Friday, February 22, 2013

Sequester blues

Not to be self-centered or something, but my concern about the sequester has just shot up exponentially for wholly selfish reasons.

Yes, I already knew that the sequester is one more example of how  dysfunctional our political system is.  I mainly blame it on the Republicans' taste for brinkmanship in support of policy choices that the American public opposes.  They contested the 2012 presidential election on the grounds that they are pushing in the sequester fight, and they decisively lost despite getting millions of votes from people who don't actually support their program of cutting Social Security and Medicare rather than allowing any high-end tax increase.  (What they agreed to in the fiscal cliff deal was actually a gigantic tax cut, relative to 2013 law on the books, and this was indeed crucial to their accepting it.)

We saw in the debt limit fight, before the Republicans decided to fold, that what they actually want is not to cut Social Security and Medicare, but to force President Obama to propose cuts that they can then "accept" and then use subsequently as campaign fodder against the Democrats.  Demanding that the other side propose the cuts you actually want, so that you can subsequently campaign against them, is a pretty high ask, even for extortionary bargaining.

Anyway, I knew how foolish this whole battle is, and that it is likely to cost about 700,000 jobs along with associated disruption.  But only belatedly have I woken up to my own short-term stake in the sequester.  Without quite endorsing Mel Brooks' view that it's comedy if it happens to you and tragedy if it happens to me, I will admit that personal stakes tend to focus one's attention.

I have two quick business trips coming up right around the zero hour.  On February 28, I am flying through Atlanta to Tallahassee in order to attend an FSU Law School conference on the 100th anniversary of the income tax, at which I will be presenting my Henry Simons paper.  That trip should be fine - there's always a chance of bad weather, but probabilistically the odds of a big blizzard are declining as we march through this grim and gray February.  (OK, admittedly it's sunny right now, albeit much too cold.)  But then on March 1 the sequester hits.  On Saturday, March 2, I am scheduled to fly through Atlanta back to NYC, arriving quite late.  On Sunday, March 3, I fly out again, through Chicago to Champaign, Illinois, where on Monday, March 4 I am presenting my Social Security and Medicare paper as this year's speaker at the annual Ann Baum Lecture at the U of Illinois Law School.  Then that night, I fly back through Chicago to NYC, where the next morning I am co-teaching the NYU Tax Policy Colloquium (and I am indeed the lead discussant for that day).

I'm also using multiple airlines - Delta for the Tallahassee trip, and American Airlines for the trip to Champaign, even though I usually fly United.  Without the sequester it all should work out, but as things stand one really wonders.

I certainly share the general view that neither side in the Washington standoff has any current choices that it prefers to letting the sequester hit with full force on March 1.  And if that happens, airplane delays will be highly likely - the New York Times says that the furloughs of federal airport personnel will make it just like a bunch of really bad weather days.  And even if the Administration could scramble to make all this less bad - which they might not have the legal discretion to do - that may not be their preferred course.  The drama of people like me fuming as they sit on the floors of overcrowded airports may be considered preferable to the slower and less visible drip-drip-drip of misguided meat-cleaver austerity.

It will be more interesting than I'd really like to see how all this ends up playing out.

UPDATE: I've decided to tempt fate less, as I see it, by flying from Tallahassee to Chicago and leaving out the intermediate NYC stop.  But there is still plenty of room for the travel gods to toy with me again.

No comments: