Fiscal Cliffs, Forever: The U.S. Is Hopelessly Addicted to Crisis

Why can't Washington govern except at the precipice of disaster?

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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."

Presented by

Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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