Is the "fiscal cliff" real or just another hoax? The answer is that the fiscal cliff is real, but it is a result, not a cause. The hoax is the way the fiscal cliff is being used.
The fiscal cliff is the result of the inability to close the federal budget deficit. The budget deficit cannot be closed because large numbers of US middle class jobs and the GDP and tax base associated with them have been moved offshore, thus reducing federal revenues. The fiscal cliff cannot be closed because of the unfunded liabilities of 11 years of US-initiated wars against a half dozen Muslim countries -- wars that have benefitted only the profits of the military/security complex and the territorial ambitions of Israel. The budget deficit cannot be closed, because economic policy is focused only on saving banks that wrongful financial deregulation allowed to speculate, to merge, and to become too big to fail, thus requiring public subsidies that vastly dwarf the totality of US welfare spending.
The hoax is the propaganda that the fiscal cliff can be avoided by reneging on promised Social Security and Medicare benefits that people have paid for with the payroll tax, and by cutting back all aspects of the social safety net from food stamps to unemployment benefits to Medicaid, to housing subsidies. The right-wing has been trying to get rid of the social safety net ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt constructed it, out of fear or compassion or both, during the Great Depression.
Washington's response to the fiscal cliff is austerity: spending cuts and tax increases. The Republicans say they will vote for the Democrats' tax increases if the Democrats vote for the Republican's assault on the social safety net. What bipartisan compromise means is a double-barreled dose of austerity.
Ever since John Maynard Keynes, economists have understood that tax increases and spending cuts suppress, not stimulate, economic activity. This is especially the case in an economy such as the American one, which is driven by consumer spending. When spending declines, so does the economy. When the economy declines, the budget deficit rises.
This is especially the case when an economy is weak and already in decline. A declining economy means less sales, less employment, less tax revenues. This works against the effort to close the federal budget deficit with austerity measures. Instead of strengthening the economy, the austerity measures weaken it further. To cut unemployment benefits and food stamps when unemployment is high or rising would be to provoke social and political instability.
Some economists, such as Robert Barro at Harvard University, claim that stimulative measures, the opposite of austerity, don't work, because consumers anticipate the higher taxes that will be needed to cover the budget deficit and, therefore, reduce their spending and increase their saving in order to be able to pay the anticipated higher taxes.
In other words, the Keynesian effort to stimulate spending causes consumers to reduce their spending. I don't know of any empirical evidence for this claim.
Regardless, the situation on the ground at the present time is that for the majority of people, incomes are stretched to the limit and beyond. Many cannot pay their bills, their mortgages, their car payments, their student loans. They are drowning in debt, and there is nothing that they can cut back in order to save money with which to pay higher taxes.
Many commentators are complaining that Congress will refuse to face the difficult issues and kick the can down the road, leaving the fiscal cliff looming. This would probably be the best outcome. As the fiscal cliff is a result, not a cause, to focus on the fiscal cliff is to focus on the symptoms rather than the disease.
The US economy has two serious diseases, and neither one is too much welfare spending.
One disease is the offshoring of US middle class jobs, both manufacturing jobs and professional service jobs such as engineering, research, design, and information technology, jobs that formerly were filled by US university graduates, but which today are sent abroad or are filled by foreigners brought in on H-1B work visas at two-thirds of the salary.
The other disease is the deregulation, especially the financial deregulation, that caused the ongoing financial crisis and created banks too big to fail, which has prevented capitalism from working and closing down insolvent corporations.
The Federal Reserve's policy is focused on saving the banks, not on saving the economy. The Federal Reserve is purchasing not only new Treasury bonds issued to finance the more than one trillion dollar annual federal deficit but also the banks' underwater financial instruments, taking them off the banks' books and putting them on the Federal Reserve's books.
Normally, debt monetization of this amount results in rising inflation, but the money that the Federal Reserve is creating in its attempt to manage the public debt and the banks' private debt is hung up in the banking system as excess reserves and is not finding its way into the economy. The banks are too busted to lend, and consumers are too indebted to borrow.
However, the debt monetization poses a second threat that is capable of biting the US economy and consumer living standards very hard. Foreign central banks, foreign investors in US stocks and financial instruments, and Americans themselves observing the Federal Reserve's continuous monetization of US debt cannot avoid concern about the dollar's value as the supply of ever more dollars continues to pour out of the Federal Reserve.
Already there is evidence of central banks and individuals moving out of dollars into gold and silver bullion and into other currencies of countries that are not hemorrhaging debt and money. According to John Williams of Shadowstats.com, the US dollar as a percentage of global holdings of reserve assets has declined from 36.6% in 2006 to 28.7% in 2012. Gold has increased from 10.5% to 12.8% and other foreign currencies except the euro increased from 38.4% to 44.4%.