The "fiscal cliff" is a a metaphor for a government that no longer responds to the biggest challenges we face because it's paralyzed by intransigent Republicans, obsessed by the federal budget deficit, and overwhelmed by big money from corporations, Wall Street, and billionaires.
If we had a functional government America would address three "cliffs" posing far larger dangers to us than the fiscal one:
The child poverty cliff
Between 2007 and 2011, the percentage of American school-age children living in poor households grew from 17% to 21%. Last year, according to the Agriculture Department, nearly one in four young children lived in a family that had difficulty affording sufficient food at some point in the year.
Yet federal programs to help children and lower-income families -- food stamps, aid for poor school districts, Pell grants, child health care, child nutrition, pre- and post-natal care, and Medicaid -- are being targeted by the Republican right. Over 60 percent of the cuts in the GOP's most recent budget came out of these programs.
Even if these programs are preserved, they don't go nearly far enough. But the Obama Administration doesn't talk about reducing poverty in America. It talks only about preserving the middle class.
Yet unless we focus on better schools, better health, and improved conditions for these poor kids and their families, in a few years America will have a significant population of under-educated and desperate adults.
The baby-boomer healthcare cliff
Healthcare costs are already 18% of GDP. Between now and 2030, when 76 million boomers join the ranks of the elderly, those costs will soar. This is the principal reason why the federal budget deficit is projected to grow.
The Affordable Care Act offers a start but it isn't nearly adequate to limit these rising costs. The President and the Democrats have to lead the way in using Medicare and Medicaid's bargaining power over providers to get lower costs and to move from a fee-for-service system to a fee-for-healthy outcomes system of healthcare.
But we can't avoid the fact we have the most expensive and least effective system of health care in the world that's spending 30 percent more on paperwork and administration than on keeping people healthy. The real healthcare cliff can only be avoided if we adopt a single-payer healthcare system.
The environmental cliff
Global emissions of carbon dioxide jumped 3 percent in 2011 and are expected to jump another 2.6 percent this year according to scientists, putting the human race perilously close to the tipping point when ice caps irretrievably melt, sea-levels rise, and amount of available cropland in the world becomes dangerously small.
Yet Republicans (and their patrons, such as Charles and David Koch) continue to deny climate change. And the Administration is no longer pushing for a cap-and-trade system or a carbon tax.
Yet unless we act to reduce carbon emissions, other major emitters won't do so. The only binding pact so far is the Kyoto Protocol, which the U.S. never joined. And we're taking no leadership at the international climate talks now taking place in Qatar.