Washington politics, and the media pundits who cover it, can get a certain Doomsdayish in their tone. Remember when a financial crisis in September of 2008 few of us understood fully promised a devastating collapse unless the government bailed out the banks right away? Or the debate over the debt ceiling which asked whether we wanted to push our country into a historic default unlike anything we'd ever seen? Which of course led to the current fiscal cliff beyond which, we are warned, lies an unfathomable abyss?
There are two problems with these crisis moments - the rhetoric and the reality.
First, the rhetoric. When you hear that an event is about to have End-of-Days ramifications, you might want to take it with a grain of salt. This is a media that refers to snow storms as Snowmageddon and Snowpocalypse, after all. These are politicians who have warned of the end of America-as-we-know-it with surprising frequency. And every election is the most important of our lifetime.
That's not to say that the political decisions being made aren't critical, or that blizzards aren't harsh. It's just a reminder not to let the extreme language lead us to extreme actions.
The second problem is the reality. This "fiscal cliff" is a manufactured crisis, just as the Tea Party's near-shutdown of the federal government was manufactured several years ago. Congress created this problem as part of a bad bargain, and now is trying to make a bad idea worse. Like a mad scientist who unleashed his own Doomsday device, Congress is claiming that its own creation is out-of-control - when in fact, cool heads, courageous voices and reasoned arguments could carry the day.
That is, if the world doesn't end first.
Both sides of the aisle thrive on crises. Bush's Administration used 9/11 to ram through the Patriot Act and a host of other ready made policies, waiting for the right crisis… not to mention a war they were hankering after anyway. And President Obama's first chief-of-staff famously remarked that the administration shouldn't let a good crisis go to waste. When we're in crisis mode we the people can get more easily bullied and bulldozed into bad decisions.
Right now, those bad decisions could look like cuts to Social Security, a popular and essential program that has nothing to do with the nation's persistent deficit. They could look like some compromise on tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, an unpopular idea that might be used to win some Republican support. In a lame duck session, with a lamer sword of Damocles, we can't expect good decision-making.
The alternative: we go over this cliff, and discover it's just a dip in the road. Bad policy will come from the automatic cuts, but then cooler heads - including some newly elected members of the House and Senate - can work to undo the damage. It will be hard, but no harder than trying to make those same choices in a rushed timeline and spirit of crisis.
Bad policy got us into this mess. No need for worse policy to get us out.
While the automatic cuts are frightening, the premise that we'll do better by racing across an unnecessary finish line is even scarier. Let's not let false deadlines and manufactured crises determine critical, long-term policy for our nation.