This year, Hollywood hit award pay dirt for political dramas inspired by American history. Unlike "The Avengers" - the top-grossing superhero movie - best-picture nominees "Argo," "Lincoln" and "Zero Dark Thirty" featured authentic, determined and courageous Americans who endured adversity and mortal danger to overcome morally inferior antagonists.
Though we're living through the umpteenth act of a gory political spectacle involving the U.S. budget, Think Again if you expect that Quentin Tarantino will adapt it for the silver screen. Devoid of heroes or valiant rescues, the drama serially unfolding in Washington isn't even telenovela-worthy, particularly the latest installment known as the "sequester."
The terrifying storyline echoed by media actors playing supporting roles - draconian spending cuts will trigger airport delays, prisoner releases, uninspected food, heightened risk of terrorist attacks and Armageddon - is intended to evoke fear and dread, transforming Americans into "Les Miserables." Taking Harry Truman's cue, "If you can't convince them, confuse them," leading actors willfully neglect to mention that in their parlance, a "cut" means a smaller increase. Hence, the last time federal spending declined, Marlon Brando and "On the Waterfront" won Oscars.
As Bob Woodward, of "All the President's Men" fame, confirmed, the White House proposed the sequester in 2011 during debt-ceiling negotiations in return for raising the limit from $14.3 trillion to $16.3 trillion. Designed as a "doomsday mechanism" to extract $1.2 trillion from the trajectory of spending growth over the next decade (during which we're projected to spend $47 trillion), President Obama signed the sequester law in August 2011.
Despite having 18 months to "go line by line through the budget," as Obama frequently promised, and in excess of $120 billion of annual government waste identified by the Government Accountability Office, no agreement was struck to avert this year's $85 billion in discretionary-spending reductions - split equally between defense and domestic programs - and a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers. Now, the sky is falling.
ABC White House correspondent Jonathan Karl chided the hysterics in his column "Devastating Sequester Spending Cuts? Give Me a Break!"
"The automatic spending cuts set to go into effect on March 1 will cause some real pain and many economists believe they would hurt the economy," he wrote. "But all the dire warnings give the impression the cuts are much larger than they actually are."
According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the much-maligned sequester merely slows by 2.4 percent the growth of annual federal spending, which climbs by $2.4 trillion (instead of $2.5 trillion) to $5.9 trillion in 2023. Even after the sequester, the federal government will spend $15 billion more this year than last year and 30 percent more than in 2007. Additionally, after including tax increases agreed to in the fiscal-cliff deal, the Budget Office projects an $845 billion deficit this year and an $8 trillion accumulated deficit through 2023, by which time national debt will be $26.1 trillion.
Since Americans live in the world's largest and strongest economy, we've tolerated government excess, even agreeing with Will Rogers, who said, "Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for." But after hurtling through successive manufactured crises, Americans empathize with Rogers, who observed, "Last year we said, 'Things can't go on like this,' and they didn't - they got worse."
That's because, unlike Americans who are accustomed to making hard choices with "True Grit," the federal government has operated without a budget since before "The Hurt Locker" won the Best Picture Oscar. Obama's last two deficit-laden budgets won zero votes in Congress, and the Senate hasn't passed a budget in four years. Consequently, the default budget process assumes ever-increasing spending levels, "From Here to Eternity."
But avoiding tough decisions means it's easier to criticize others who do, like the House, which has passed budgets incorporating reforms Obama once promised and his deficit commission recommended as well as bills to rationally allocate the sequester's crude cuts.
Seemingly willing to cause Americans to fear more than fear itself, the president is traveling the country - at great expense - to campaign against the sequester he proposed, painting rivals as "Inglourious Basterds." Wouldn't the national interest be better served were Obama to propose priority-driven cuts? Why doesn't he take a cue from Reagan and Clinton and pursue bipartisan tax and entitlement reforms to boost the economy, address unsustainable growth in mandatory expenditures and secure vital discretionary programs?
After instituting similar reforms, Sweden achieved a remarkable economic turnaround following the 2008 financial crisis, and so can we. But we'll need leaders who embody Steven Covey's habits of highly effective people, including: Accept responsibility for one's decisions, build cooperative relationships with rivals, take the blame, and give the credit. Essentially, the "Silver Linings Playbook" for America requires leaders who are committed to win-win solutions, not merely winning.
Think Again - such a command performance would be a hot ticket.
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. Her column runs every other Thursday. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.