June 19, 2018
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Caught between a Scylla and a Charybdis

By John Frary, Special to the BDN

I know some readers get all riled up when exposed to unfamiliar words, especially if they sound weird. I’ve waited patiently seven years for the opportunity to use these two words. I ask for a little patience in return.

In Greek mythology Scylla was a nasty she-monster with a hearty appetite who lay in wait for ships sailing close enough so she could reach out, grab the sailors, and make a meal of them. Charybdis lurked a bowshot away from a shipping lane where she gulped down and belched up the waters three times a day, drowning sailors who came too close. The problem is that they lurked on opposite sides of a narrow strait.

This ancient fable gives us the metaphor “sailing between Scylla and Charybdis,” i.e., choosing between two equally unpleasant alternatives and suffering the consequences. I put it to my readers that this is a more useful metaphor than “gridlock” to describe Washington’s apparent inability to address the country’s most pressing problems.

The problem is not that the Democrats are Scylla and the Republicans Charybdis (or vice versa if you prefer). Our political leadership are the timid and desperate navigators in this metaphor while voters play the role of Scylla and Charybdis, threatening them with equally unpleasant choices.

Republicans may prefer cutting expenditures to avoid our impending fiscal disaster, but they have reason to fear that a majority of voters will become hostile if any part of the goodies they have been promised is denied them. Democrats may prefer to raise taxes, but they know better than to run on a platform featuring tax increases.

Republican try to get around this by pretending that there will be cuts enough if they eliminate fraud, waste and welfare abuses, but they know that it’s the entitlements that have become unsustainable. Democrats like to pretend that our budgets can be balanced and our national debt paid down by taxing the “rich,” but they know they will have to tax the middle class. Equality, or “fairness,” may have its own attraction but it will not solve the fiscal problem.

Frightened of the voters, both parties sail around and around on the wrong side of the narrow straits, fearful of attempting the passage. They will stick with a policy of “Let them eat cake — and have it too” for a long time to come. It’s fear that constrains them, but they prefer to call it pragmatism, centrism or moderation.

This year the Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed a budget they call The Path to Prosperity. It proposes cuts in both entitlements and discretionary spending along with lower income tax rates, the elimination of some tax deductions, exemptions and subsidies. It anticipates a tax revenue amounting to 19 percent of the gross domestic product, slightly above a 30-year historical average of 18.2 percent.

Ron Paul voted against it. He thinks it’s timid and inadequate. He may be right. Some conservative and libertarian analysts agree, but only three other GOP representatives voted with him. Speaker of the House John Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor praise Ryan’s proposal but cautiously argued that a national conversation must take place between people of all political stripes about the fiscal future. President Obama’s contribution to the national conversation has been to denounce it as “radical” and “thinly-veiled social Darwinism.” Democratic National Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz‘s contributions to the conversation is calling it “a death trap for seniors.” Steny Hoyer, Democratic minority whip, doesn’t seem to agree in full. He claims it’s just a bunch of rhetoric.

Boehner responded that “the president is certainly entitled to disagree with our budget … but what exactly is his alternative?” Liberal pundits and “experts” find the whole thing kind of fishy and evasive, but many agree with Boehner that no plausible alternative has come from the Democrats.

So here they are, still lingering timidly beyond the reach of either Scylla and Charbydis. People who expect courage from politicians will put the whole blame on them. I think the voters are entitled to a share.

Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine, is a former U.S. Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia. He can be reached at jfrary8070@aol.com.

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