The fiscal cliff showed America is a country addicted to crisis

January 3, 2013

So we did not fall off the cliff. But the reaction to the news of the deal suggests that we’ve become a culture addicted to crisis, because barely had the vote been taken when the spin from politicians, from the mainstream media, and from the cacophonous web was angry, sullen, and negative.

The problem is said to be, in no particular order: Washington, partisanship, Tea Party ideologues, tax-and-spend Democrats, unions, rich people, America, unemployment, underemployment, the shafting of the middle class, the end of the American dream, the untenable deficit, unfunded mandates, and unreasonable expectations. But maybe the problem is none of those; maybe it’s a deepening love affair with crisis. The perverse lure of descent and an inability to break out of the cycle is threatening to overcome us.

What did the deal actually accomplish? Taxes went up significantly for the wealthy and modestly for most, yet the core of lower rates for the vast majority of Americans was retained. Financial markets reacted giddily and made up some lost ground. And for all of the legitimate carping about the dysfunction and polarization of Washington, the deal was actually bipartisan. An overwhelming majority of both Republicans and Democrats backed it in the Senate, while in the House the deal fractured the Republican caucus. The party split its vote and was then joined by a majority of Democrats.

After weeks of decrying the sorry state of Washington and assuming that gridlock and ideology would prevent any accord, Americans were left with an actual deal to confront. Yet rather than conceding that something had been done, and that this something was in this case a far cry better than nothing, reaction has followed the adage (often scornfully ascribed to economists): “Don’t let facts get in the way of a good theory.”

The theory in this case is that America is broken, and that the fiscal cliff debacle is further proof. The most common refrain was that “the deal is a disaster.” So said Peter Huntsman, head of the multi-billion-dollar chemical company and brother of the former presidential candidate John Huntsman. And so did countless others.

In fact, if you do a Google search of “fiscal cliff disaster,” you get two sets of results: from just after the deal and from the weeks before. Before, people were saying that if Congress failed to do a deal, it would be a disaster. After, people are saying that the deal Congress did is a disaster.

You might think that news of the deal – however imperfect (and let it be stipulated that, indeed, it is that) – would be greeted with a measure of relief and a degree of satisfaction that worst-case fears did not come to pass. But no. Instead, we get a chorus of criticisms combined with darker intonations that even worse lies ahead, with the looming debt ceiling debate in Congress, austerity in the form of new taxes, and general economic malaise being unaddressed.

Greg Valliere of the Potomac Group concluded:

While the markets…may breathe a sigh of relief for a few days, excuse us for not celebrating. We have consistently warned that the [debt ceiling] brawl represents a far greater threat to the markets – talk of default will grow by February, accompanied by concerns over a credit rating downgrade.

In a similar vein, longtime Washington insider David Rothkopf concluded: “The ‘fiscal cliff’ debate and the last-minute deal it produced have so far resolved nothing except to show that our system is profoundly broken and that radical changes are needed to fix it.”

If these reactions were simply part of a spectrum, you could argue that it’s just the healthy noise of a democracy in action. But what a narrow spectrum it is, marked by disengagement, disillusionment and disdain on one end, and rage, fear and despair on the other. That’s not healthy noise; it’s a chorus of pessimism.

Taking a step back, is the situation in the United States really so dire? So the fiscal cliff deal is incomplete and imperfect, leaving the entire question of future spending unresolved. So America has work to do. But is it in dire shape? Syria is dire, with civil war now and the prospect of an even bloodier one to come. Iran is dire, with a clerical regime mired in corruption and zealotry and a citizenry thoroughly disgusted. North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan – those deserve some serious hand wringing, rage and passion. In South Africa, where old Mandela-inspired hopes are crashing against sclerotic bureaucracies and corruption, there is real reason for concern. Greece, with no end in sight to contraction and austerity; Spain, with a lost generation and a rigid labor market; Venezuela, after years of the not-so-benign caudillismo of Hugo Chavez – those countries face unenviable problems. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a jungle of death. There are real calamities in the world, embodied by governments and states; the United States is not even close.

A vibrant, outspoken and self-critical citizenry is a necessary and vital element of a thriving democracy. But when the public conversation becomes so relentlessly fixated on the disaster porn of political and economic challenges, an invisible but significant line has been crossed. Myopic focus on the next crisis and the battles that loom ahead with nary a sense of balance isn’t a recipe for collective action; it’s a formula for collective paralysis.

Retrospectively, the fiscal cliff drama – which we will shortly forget was the central focus of politics, the news and the financial markets for the past six weeks – leads ineluctably to the conclusion that we’ve become addicted to crisis. And like any addiction, we need to break the habit. Unlike an addict, however, no one is going to stage an intervention. (That much was made clear in November’s Congressional elections, thanks in part to gerrymandered districts.)

It goes unsaid that yes, we have issues, any or all of which may spell dramatically worse problems ahead. Tens of millions within these United States are suffering, have no jobs, have jobs that pay way too little for too much work; millions have inadequate health care, or mismatched skills for today’s labor market. But every society is plagued by the gap between the world it wishes to create and the one it actually inhabits. Washington is imperfect? Why is that newsworthy? Why can that be endlessly repeated and count as trenchant analysis? Because it fills a void in a society that is addicted to crisis.

Our craving will be amply supplied in the coming weeks, with the debt ceiling debate and economic data that will likely remain less robust than we hope or need. The crisis maw will be fed. But until we start putting our travails in perspective, until we start nourishing the better angels of our nature and recognizing what is working alongside what is not, we will remain stuck in place, unaware of our self-fulfilling prophecies, still wondering how things can ever change.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks next to Vice President Joe Biden (L) after the House of Representatives acted on legislation intended to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” at the White House in Washington January 1, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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Yep. Have to agree with you Zach. The media loves to promote a crisis real or not, and most Americans just eat it up like pigs eat slop,and then spread it like the flu. The media can take the best event in the world, and put a negative doomsday spin on it somehow. If Jesus Christ were to come down from the skies and eliminate all sickness and suffering, the media would put a negative spin on it. REM’s song “Bad Day” mocked the media perfectly.
But it’s nothing new, just faster reaction due to the internet, tweety birds, etc.

Posted by americanguy | Report as abusive

So we are addicted to crisis, huh? How about this instead: Our government is addicted to corporate political money, and our population is addicted to corporate funded propaganda in the form of advertising and outright political lies. Why would corporations (and the very rich I might add – like the Kochs) do this? Because if you get everyone fighting at the bottom level, they won’t look up and see who is defecating on them.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

…otherwise known as “Divide and Conquer”. And we are the suckers who allowed ourselves to be intentionally divided.

Posted by possibilianP | Report as abusive

This new year, I wish US economy keep booming, and conquer finance crisis, then our Garden pruners,Loppers,Hedge shears,Garden hand tools,Garden watering can,Garden bag,Plastic flower pot, which can be sold in US super market.

Posted by singsuntool | Report as abusive

It would seem what you are arguing for is some perspective. That suggests the need for a positive against which to judge the scale of the negative.

Perhaps it is the case that genuine endeavours – ambition to create – that go beyond tax incentives and marginal socio-economic improvements are what really counter malaise and introspection.

It’s rather like being underemployed and sitting on the couch (take it from me). The longer you sit there the worse things look, but do some thing to actively change your fortunes (no matter how mad-cap) and suddenly the struggle seems manageable.

Democracies are sustained by collective action – that is what they are – stop muddling scale with ambition. America (just like all democracies) needs an ambition for itself beyond rising economic growth (the job of corporations) to bring perspective to the day to day grind of government.

The industrialisation of the second world war and the scientific exertion of the space race set of private enterprise explosions that the rest of the world still hasn’t caught up with. It’s time for America to find itself something TO DO.

Posted by micomplexblog | Report as abusive

It’s indicative of poor managers that they can only function when in ‘crisis’ mode. Time and again they wait until the last minute to do their job, and then get the thrill of running around on adrenaline to make themselves seem inordinately more important than they are. Sorry, don’t even have time to look at the Sandy relief bill because of the fiscal cliff. Never mind that we’ve had months to work on both. Why quietly do our jobs when we get so much more media attention (this may be the real addiction here) when we wait until it’s almost to late. If it weren’t for the fact that the issues are so serious, Congress would be a wonderful vaudeville show.

Posted by thinkb4its2late | Report as abusive

I’ve read other articles where Republicans are quoted as stating outright that the next hurdle – the debt-ceiling – is where, they promise, the fight will be even bloodier than the fiscal-cliff deal. And then when it IS, am I to be blamed for negativity about Congress? Really?

Ask yourself, if Congress were consistently and competently doing their jobs, would we have so much angst with each deadline we face?

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Let’s be clear here. It’s not the country that’s addicted to crisis, it’s the GOP since it’s the last way they have of influencing public policy, holding the country hostage.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive