Jeff Macke

Just Explain It: Why the Fiscal Cliff May Trigger a Recession

Just Explain It

Lawmakers in Washington appear to be making little to no progress in avoiding the impending so-called fiscal cliff. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Friday the negotiations are "almost nowhere." On Thursday Boehner rejected a proposal from the Obama administration saying that the Democrats need to "get serious about real spending cuts."

President Obama's offer continues to call for higher taxes on the wealthy and an extension of the payroll tax cut. But Republicans say they will not agree to a plan that raises taxes.

As the country continues to head toward the fiscal cliff, this Just Explain It helps to make sense of what it is.

On December 31st, most of us would like to be thinking about a prosperous new year ahead…drinking bubbly and singing Auld Lang Syne with friends. But there's a chance we could be singing a different tune if President Obama and Congress don't agree on measures to avoid the fiscal cliff.

First, let me explain what the fiscal cliff is.

The fiscal cliff refers to the potentially disastrous situation the U-S faces at the end of this year. At midnight on December 31st, a number of laws are set to expire. If the President and the Republicans don't reach an agreement before then, Americans could face broad government spending cuts and tax increases on January 1st. The combined amount would total over 500 billion dollars. Those 500 billion dollars equal about three to four percent of the nation's entire gross domestic product. This is what's referred to as the fiscal cliff.

If there isn't a resolution, here are the specifics of what will happen.

Taxes would go up for almost every taxpayer and many businesses. The Bush-era tax cuts, which tax relief for middle and upper-class tax payers, would be a thing of the past. So would President Obama's payroll tax cut which added about a thousand dollars a year to the average worker's income.

Government spending would be slashed. That means less money for most military, domestic and federal programs. $26 billion in emergency unemployment-compensation would be gone. Medicare payments to doctors would be reduced by $11 billion. Federal programs would take the biggest hit. They stand to lose a total of $65 billion.

If the fiscal cliff isn't avoided, some investors will be hit hard. Those who receive qualified dividends could see the tax rate on those dividends go from 15% to almost 40% in 2013.

Many business owners believe going over the fiscal cliff will cripple the economy, triggering a deep recession. They fear demand for their products or services will decrease because consumers will have less money to spend. It also means that they won't be able to afford new hires or expand their businesses. Since most Americans would be paying more in taxes, they'd be less inclined to make big purchases, like a home or a new car.

None of this is set in stone, but that's part of the problem. Markets, businesses and people in general hate uncertainty. The fear of the unknown facing us at the beginning of next year is exactly why so many people are so worked up over the fiscal cliff.

Did you learn something? Do you have a topic you'd like explained? Give us your feedback in the comments below or on twitter using #justexplainit.

View Comments (3947)