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Cataclysm

The world did not end after all. Maybe debacles happened yesterday, but not a cataclysm.

There was so much fuss over the fact that the Mayan calendar, a marvel of precision and astronomical knowledge, ends Dec. 21, 2012. Somehow, some confusion happened along the way and the distinction between the end of a calendar and the end of the world was lost in translation.

The Mayan calendar, unlike the Roman one we use, computed for long cycles. The last relic of this calendar does end this month. Because this was equated with the end of days, apocalyptic cults have camped on hillsides or built arks for the great flood.

Actually, all that we needed to do was reissue the calendar. The Mayans, however, could no longer do that. What was once a great civilization was summarily destroyed by colonial power. All the wisdom accumulated through the ages by this impressive civilization is lost in the mist of time.

All the apocalyptic fuss was unfounded after all. All the energies expended preparing for the apocalypse might have been put to better use honoring the Mayans. The great technologies they evolved could not stand up to gunpowder. This was a civilization that lived for wisdom but was unprepared for war. They had great mathematics but no means to resist the European onslaught.

The demise of Mayan civilization is not due to the Conquest alone, even if the conquistadores brought with them viruses and bacteria against which the natives were defenseless. Archeological studies also suggest this great civilization began declining when its natural resources ran out, stripped by the growth of large settlements and the spiraling requirements of a complex civilization.

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If the Apocalypse does come on a global scale, it will be a larger version of the crisis of scarcity that befell the Mayans and other ancient civilizations like it. This might be the more usable focus of reflection.

The world did not end this week — although the abuse of the earth could bring about the slow demise of global civilization as we know it. Instead of gazing at the stars, as the Mayans did, we might be better off studying our own carbon footprint. That is where the peril lies.

Cliff

Instead of Armageddon, what confronts us is a cliff, a fiscal cliff.

This week, everybody expected the politicians in Washington DC to get real and arrive at a bipartisan deal in order to avoid pushing the US economy over the fiscal cliff at the start of the new year. Instead, we close the week with the two parties poles apart on the matter.

If no deal is cut by the end of the year, American public finances will hit the congressionally imposed debt ceiling. Large public programs will be scrapped. The US economy will lose about $600 billion, which in turn will lead to a deep recession.

For decades, the US Congress routinely raised the debt ceiling each year. There was a moral hazard to this, of course. The US accumulated trillions in public debt. Just servicing that debt assures the US will, like Japan, enter into a prolonged period of stagnation.

The Republicans, who control the US House of Representatives, decided this was the time to draw the line on fiscal irresponsibility. Borrowing as usual will keep future generations of Americans prisoners to the public debt. They refuse to raise the debt ceiling until the administration offers drastic spending cuts.

The Democrats, who control the US Senate and the White House, want to raise taxes on the richest Americans to help close the deficit. They are offering a program hiking taxes on the top 1% of income earners as a condition for spending cuts.

The Republicans oppose tax increases of any sort. They believe this will slow economic activity, producing higher unemployment. They chaff at the idea of penalizing the most productive and the most efficient, believing this is not the way to go for an innovative market economy.

Unable to reach a deal over what to do with the debt ceiling, the House Republicans announced they will proceed with what they call “Plan B” — their own program for dealing with the deficit and the debt. Their proposed measure contains what is unlikely to pass the Democratic-controlled Senate. Even if it does, President Obama declared he will veto anything that does not conform with his idea about how to go about dealing with the fiscal mess, and idea anchored on raising taxes for the rich.

By Thursday night, the Republican House leadership suffered a major political debacle when they failed to muster the votes to get their “Plan B” through. The legislators simply packed up and went home without a clear roadmap on how to avoid the fiscal cliff.

Washington returns to work after Christmas to see if any compromise could still be saved. Last month, we thought the politicians were really playing it too close, leaving little time to work out a compromise package. Now they have only a couple of days left in the working calendar before the debt ceiling is hit at the end of this year.

The two parties have been playing a game of chicken for weeks, pushing things close to a fiscal disaster to see who would blink first. At this point, however, all they have achieved was to drag the entire global economy to the brink.

Commentators everywhere decry the volume of political stupidity that seems to have gripped Washington, causing the global economy to teeter on the economic brink as the year draws to a close.

 

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