Don’t look down
Somewhere between Nik Wallenda’s first step onto a tightrope over Niagara Falls and Greece’s most recent retreat from the brink, it hit me: Teetering needlessly on the precipice of disaster wasn’t just the story of the weekend. It’s the story of our days.
Cliff dwelling has become the modern way of life.
We exist, without always having to, on the edge. Or, rather, on one edge after another, some of our own making, others avoidable if we could just summon the maturity, discipline and will.
As cliff dwellers we deal with nothing until the last possible minute and act in timid, impermanent ways, growing all too accustomed to indecision and a bit too inured to dread. Although we have alternatives — paths, however strenuous, back to safer ground — we neglect them, casting our lots with chance. Maybe a wave comes and takes us. Maybe not, and we can contrive some pleasure as we watch the sunset.
On Sunday our gazes were diverted, once again, toward Greece. Its citizens headed anew to the polls, to cast votes that held the possibility of doom for the euro, whose collapse would wreak economic havoc far and wide. The rest of us did what we’d become practiced at. We held our breaths.
But did it have to come to that? Greece’s limbo underscores Europe’s inability to determine once and for all how much it’s willing to invest in the future of the euro. The Continent’s leaders make micro adjustments in lieu of a macro commitment or big decision of any kind. The suspense sometimes shifts locus — today Greece, tomorrow Spain or Italy — but doesn’t end.
That mirrors the serial uncertainty on the opposite side of the Atlantic, where the U.S. Congress, inept at so very much, excels at catastrophic scenarios and suffixes. It has mastered the -mageddon.
“Taxmageddon,” as it’s sometimes called on Capitol Hill, is the new biggie, looming early next year. That’s when, in the absence of congressional action, supposedly temporary tax cuts passed under George W. Bush and extended by President Barack Obama expire as automatic spending reductions agreed to at the end of the debt ceiling showdown (“debtmaggedon”) begin to kick in. The combined force of those developments, according to some projections, would be a $700 billion blow to the economy in 2013 and, as the year progressed, a recession.
The current issue of Time magazine not only outlines this doomsday scenario and discusses how kick-the-can lawmakers have “manufactured an irrational cataclysmic event,” but also enshrines “fiscal cliff” as the phrase of the week.
The Times, for its part, presented “fiscal cliffs notes,” explaining that economic growth could slow by 3.6 percentage points next year if Democrats and Republicans can’t reach an agreement that yanks us back from the brink.
They probably will. When they finally must. Which is months away. No reason to rush! Certainly not if the pace of progress in this case mimics the movement (or lack thereof) during debtmaggedon, when an intransigent band of the most conservative House Republicans delayed raising the debt ceiling for so long that the nation’s credit rating was docked.
Everything is a standoff — remember the December battle over the payroll tax? — and all is brinkmanship, even budget votes that were once routine. Three times last year the government came close to a shutdown, and once the Federal Aviation Administration was forced to suspend some operations — flightmageddon! — while members of Congress bickered and $400 million in airline taxes was lost.
There are lesser -geddons as well, like “loanmageddon,” the July 1 point at which the rate for federally subsidized student loans will double to 6.8 percent from 3.4. Wrangling over this began months ago. Wrangling over this continues. Wrangling over this will almost surely produce some kind of extension, no doubt temporary, so that wrangling can resume next year. Even the littlest -geddons get their sequel.
And we get dangerously familiar with feelings of helplessness, with stopgap remedies and with last-minute reprieves, which are enough in some instances, not in others.
Right now Colorado is burning, and more than 55,000 acres and more than 180 homes have been decimated by what is being called the worst wildfire in the state’s history. Six of the 10 largest wildfires in Texas’ history happened last year, when the state suffered its worst drought since the 1950s.
Some scientists connect all of that and other extreme weather to climate change. Many of us feel culpable, and many of us fear worse. But, accomplished cliff dwellers that we are, we do more fretting than anything else. Confronted with the prospect of something as life-altering as global warming, we cool our heels.
And distract ourselves. ABC got its highest Friday-night ratings in almost five years when more than 13 million viewers tuned in to see if Wallenda could make it from one cliff to another: a man at the mercy of the winds, a metaphor for the taking.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.