A road trip through the economic landscape

    No matter where we sit on the tax spectrum, Americans feel like children in the family car when their parents can’t agree on directions. We’re strapped in, on our way to the Fiscal Cliff, and we had no choice about this excursion. The President and Congress are sharing the driving.

    We swerve left and right, abruptly pull into the White House driveway for press conferences, and take off again in a huff. A bit down the road we slam to a stop for an update from the Treasury or Federal Reserve — advice that sounds more like a suicide hotline than a GPS.

    Here in the back seat, things are tense. We are carsick, hoping they find a route they both like soon, but we would settle for a rest stop. We’re scanning the interior, wishing the car had a few more airbags, to soften the blow that will inevitably come. We are trying to raise a ruckus, hoping that somebody up front will threaten to turn this car around. But the drivers are making too much noise themselves to pay attention to us.

    Except for front-seat ultimatums and sniping, the trip has been unpredictable. To review: Before heading for the Fiscal Cliff, we toured the Mortgage Marsh and plunged through the Swamp of Home Equity. It wasn’t fun. The car got stuck and everything came to a halt.

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    Most of us got out to push, and before we knew it, were up to our armpits in the muck, except for the bankers. They stayed clean and dry by climbing out of the windows and sitting on the roof. From there, they tossed suitcases full of bad debt into the swamp, assuring us that this would lighten the load. But the bankers never once looked where they were throwing the cases. Several of us were blindsided by flying debris and pushed underwater. We felt around for solid ground, but every time we got a foothold, it quickly dissolved.

    After what seemed like forever, we found the edge of the quagmire. Clutching the soggy vegetation, we struggled to pull ourselves up. Meanwhile the bankers, with hardly a wrinkle among them, put on their parachutes and jumped over to dry ground, leaving the rest of us behind, muddy and dripping. They said they would send help. They didn’t.

    From there, the itinerary is a blur. We tumbled down the Slippery Slope of Vanishing Savings, and almost crashed into the Debt Ceiling, which was just this side of Default Forest. Congress temporarily propped the ceiling up with the Fiscal Cliff, and we’ve been headed there ever since. If we go over the cliff we’ll smash into the ceiling again.

    We keep wandering in and out of the Negative Territories, which meander throughout the economic landscape. They are like quicksand: One wrong turn and we’re right back in. It would be nice to leave them behind, but we can’t focus on any one thing too long for fear of losing sight of the cliff. We edge closer every day, and if we go over, we will plunge into Recession Falls for sure.

    When they thought we were asleep, the ones up front talked about a scenic overlook somewhere between Entitlement Beach and Taxation Terrace. Not surprisingly, they can’t agree on the precise location. If they manage to find it, we can park, take a nice photo, and plot a better course.

    Our fingers are crossed, but truthfully, those of us in the back seat will be satisfied just to survive this trip. To distract ourselves, we have been talking about where to go next year. So far, the popular choice seems to be the Isthmus of Prosperity on the Sea of Tranquility. But the people in the front seat have other ideas — they are already looking at brochures from the Retirement Iceberg.

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in Philadelphia.

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