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December 19, 2012 9:03 AM What the Newtown Shooting and the Fiscal Cliff Have in Common

By Austin Frakt

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.

[Cross-posted at The Incidental Economist]

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Austin Frakt is a health economist and an assistant professor at Boston University's School of Medicine and School of Public Health. He blogs at The Incidental Economist.
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