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
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
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.