• What the Newtown shooting and the fiscal cliff have in common

    The Newtown shooting was a horrific and cruel event. Though I was touched, as every parent was, my heart breaks for the grieving families who experienced it more closely than I did. I cannot fully fathom the pain.

    The fiscal cliff is a manufactured crisis, constructed by our lawmakers. Though the underlying issues of stimulus, debt, entitlements, and taxes are real, they’ve all been politicized to the point of caricature … or farce. I’m as disgusted as concerned.

    The Newtown shooting and the fiscal cliff crisis (if we may call it that) appear to have nothing to do with each other. I know linking them risks relating a cruel murder of children to a political drama. That is not my intent. A murder is a murder. A manufactured fiscal crisis is just that.

    However, the two, though different, do share one thing in common. They are both galvanizing events — in both cases deliberately so, though by different means. As such, they both demand a response from lawmakers. Few would say otherwise.

    And yet, in both cases, the response we may get is not the response we most need. A 1990s-style assault weapons ban, for example, would do very little to address gun violence. The most recently proposed mix of new taxes and spending cuts leaves a lot yet to be done to address long-term fiscal stability and may be insufficiently stimulative (or anti-stimulative) to meet current economic needs, among other problems. Urgent policy is not always good policy. That is the other, unfortunate connection.

    Politics is the art of the possible, Bismark said. The possible is heightened by crisis. Though proximity to tragedy may confer opportunity, it doesn’t confer wisdom. For good policy takes reflection, coalition building, evidence gathering. The body politic doesn’t think so clearly at gun point or at the cliff’s edge. Options are circumscribed.

    Yesterday, I received some wisdom by tweet. Matt Henry pointed out that solutions too narrowly focused on rare events risk missing opportunities to accomplish broader good. Catastrophes like mass shootings and economy-wrecking fiscal crises are rare events. You do the math. Broader responses commensurate with a wider focus are possible.

    Possible, but not necessarily likely. We have seen just how hard it is for recent Congresses to do anything in the climate of heightened partisanship and operational dysfunction that has become the new normal. As such, myopic, crisis-driven policy may be the only policy. Indeed, that we respond narrowly and urgently to crisis and with legislation is not new. It is natural to want to, to need to, do something and quickly. Moreover, a tight, focused response makes broad agreement easier because it disrupts coalitions and alienates stakeholders the least. Opportunity heightens, but also narrows, a Heisenberg-like principle of policy and politics.

    No doubt more could be written on this theme, but I’m not the one best suited to write it. However it is written, if at all, it must conclude with a caution. I’m not saying, and, in my view, nobody should say, that we should not respond to galvanizing events, to tragedy, to crises, including the Newtown shooting. I’m not even saying that we should not do something quickly. A proximate crisis is a good opportunity. To waste it would be a double tragedy. I am merely warning that the urgent response isn’t always the best response.

    In all things, and most of all policy, we should aim high … and then take what we can get.


    • Newtown is yet another example of the sensational but rare event getting attention, while the mundane gets little. Should we care more about a headline grabbing event in which tens are killed than about the tens of thousands who are killed with guns with little or no publicity? http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/injury.htm

      The fiscal cliff is an example of almost total lack of understanding of economics in the US combined with relentless lobbying by wealthy players trying to increase their wealth at the expense of the broad population by cutting government spending and decreasing their taxes. They’ve pushed ‘deficits will kill us all’ for years. Now that we might see real deficit reduction (aka the fiscal cliff) that would raise their taxes, suddenly reducing deficits will kill us all. What should be obvious to all is a drive to cut the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid vital to the middle class in return for keeping low tax rates on the highest earners (perhaps higher than today, but very low by any other measure). A manufactured crisis (the fiscal cliff) is the latest tool in this long run program.

      As you say, an urgent response isn’t always the best response.

    • Fiscal cliff? Taxes? Gun Control? How’s this to remedy a larger than life problem?? Effective November 1st, 2012, Healthy New York Health Insurance will NO longer pay for any mental health medications. I am a single parent, paying a $475 monthly premium for MYSELF only, and the medication that makes the difference in me going to work or not is NO longer covered. In light of all these random, senseless acts…how could they consider doing such a thing. Do you know how many of hundreds of thousands of lives this affects and what the possible repercussions are??