The Fiscal Cliff: A Disastrous Possibility

Monday, October 8th, 2012

Back in early 2012 the Republicans and Democrats, failing in their attempts to come to an agreement on a variety of proposed efforts to reduce the national debt and growing expenses, agreed that the stalemate simply couldn’t continue and that debt and spending had to be reeled in.  But what they could not agree upon was a structured way to actually break that stalemate, or how to move forward. Prevailing party philosophies were entirely disparate, and neither was willing to compromise. Agreeing to disagree, they landed on a “poison pill” strategy; if by January 2013 there was no superseding agreement by a majority of congress, broad budget cuts of more than a trillion dollars would be automatically initiated.

fiscal cliff

Many folks are trying to reassure themselves: “Surely nobody would ever let that happen. Surely the Republicans and Democrats will come to their senses and there will be some level of agreement.” Well, that hasn’t happened. There’s an election about to occur in less than 30 days, and there will certainly not be agreement before or for some time after – and that doesn’t leave much time.  The two parties could not disagree more fundamentally or on more tenets of their philosophies of debt/spending reduction.  Just as bad, there are many fundamental disagreements within segments of both parties, as well as between the Senate and House. The scariest part is that the only way to avert the fiscal cliff is with bi-partisan, majority agreement on a compromise plan.

The stakes here are very high; it is no exaggeration to say that the future of the entire economy is at the edge of this fiscal cliff.  If we go over that cliff and the automatic cuts trigger, we’ll be right back into the worst of 2008: massive layoffs in an economy already suffering from stubborn 8% unemployment rates.  Also, credit and with it commerce could grind to a halt. It’s exactly what’s going on right now throughout Europe—a recipe for catastrophe indeed.

This of course will also trickle down to the substance abuse treatment field.  At the federal level, every agency will face immediate retroactive 2012 budget cuts in the neighborhood of 25 or 30 percent, according to communications with executaive staff from several agencies. And more than any other area of healthcare, the alcohol and drug field is dependent upon government funding (Block grants, Veterans Administration, Medicaid, etc.); only about 12-15% of all treatment revenues come from private insurance. I’m not sure our field – already reeling from budget cuts and regulatory and financial uncertainty – will ever recover.

So… I’m worried.  Sure, no sensible society or governing body would ever let this come to pass, but I don’t see much sense, sensibility, or sensitivity towards compromise happening in either party. How “compromise” has become synonymous with “cowardice” in our political climate is unfathomable to me. Which business gets to have its own way 100% of the time? Which union? Which family member? Politicians should be even more adept and comfortable with compromise than the rest of us. It’s a virtue, not a sin; to be uncompromising is to be rigid, greedy, and selfish. At this point compromise is the only thing that has the power to save our country.

Which leads us to the obvious question: what on earth can we do about this? We can use the only tool that trumps ideology, politics, and even money: the voice of the people. I know it sounds corny and like something from a Frank Capra movie—but it’s true. If this crisis is to be averted Americans will have to make those demands directly to their congress and link those demands with their votes. To strengthen this impact, we in the treatment field must join with the commerce field, the criminal justice field, the welfare field, the healthcare field, and concerned citizens from every state, to push our politicians to come to a sensible accommodation.

So let’s start writing, let’s start provoking, let’s start pushing the politicians to meet in the middle instead of sticking to their ideologies and destroying all of us in the process.


Tom McLellan, Ph.D.

Blog Editor’s Note: Dr. McLellan is a leading researcher in the field of substance abuse treatment. He is founder of the Philadelphia-based Treatment Research Institute and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as Deputy Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, where he was instrumental in developing the Obama Administration’s National Drug Control Strategy.

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