Often, economic crises are caused by real physical problems - like draught, war, demography, or technological innovation that robs one economy of a competitive advantage over another.
Other times, economic crises result when asset bubbles burst, or financial markets collapse. That was the case of the Great Depression - and more recently the Great Recession.
The economic crisis of the moment - the "fiscal cliff" - does not result from any of these factors. In fact it is not a real "economic crisis" at all, except that it could inflict serious economic hardship on many Americans and could drive the economy back into recession.
The "fiscal cliff" is a politically manufactured crisis. It was original concocted by the Republican Senate Leader, Mitch McConnell as a way to get past the last crisis manufactured by the Republicans - the 2011 standoff over increasing the Federal Debt Ceiling.
Theoretically, "the cliff" - composed of increased taxes and huge, indiscriminant cuts in Federal programs - would be so frightening to policy makers that no one would ever consider allowing the nation to jump.
Now, America is on the brink of diving off the cliff for one and only one reason: many House Republicans are terrified of primary challenges from the Tea Party right.
That's right, if your tax bill goes up $2,200 a year, or you're one of the millions who would stop receiving unemployment benefits, the cause of your economic pain is not some a natural disaster, or a major structural flaw in the economy. The cause is Republican fear of being beaten in a primary by people like Sarah Palin, Sharon Angel or Richard Mourdock - funded by far Right Wing oligarchs like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers. It's that simple.
Most normal Americans will have very little patience with Republicans as they begin to realize that GOP Members of Congress are willing to risk throwing the country back into a recession because they are worried about being beaten in low turn out primaries by people who do a better job than they do appealing to the extreme right fringe of the American electorate - and to the far Right plutocrats that are all too willing to stoke right wing passion and anger.
Nate Silver, of the New York Time's 538.com, argues in a recent column that one of the reasons for this phenomenon is the increasing polarization of the American electorate. That polarization translates in to fewer truly "swing" Congressional seats and an increasing number where Members are more concerned with primary challenges than they are with losing in a general election. He concludes that at this moment the number of solidly Republican seats is larger the number of solidly Democratic seats.
This, he argues is partially a result of redistricting by Republican legislatures that packed Democrats into a limited number of districts in many states. But he also contends it results from increasing polarization of the electorate in general. And it is due to the fact that solidly Democratic urban areas have very high concentrations of Democrats, where Republican performing areas tend to have relatively lower concentrations of Republicans. These reasons help explain why, even though Democrats got more votes in House races this cycle than Republicans, Republicans still have more seats in the House.
Increased political polarization in the United States is not a result of some accident or act of God. In 2006, political scientists Nolan McCarty, Kevin T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal published a study of political polarization called Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches. Their study found that there is a direct relationship between economic inequality and polarization in American politics.
They measured political polarization in congressional votes over the last century, and found a direct correlation with the percentage of income received by the top 1% of the electorate. It is no accident that the years following the second World War, a period of low political polarization, was also a period that economist Paul Krugman refers to as the "great compression" -- with robust economic growth for most Americans and reducing levels of economic inequality. In other words, it turns out that if you want less political polarization, the best medicine is reducing income inequality.
Of course, one of the other major factors feeding the GOP fear of primaries is that, because of the Citizens United decision, far right plutocrats can now inject virtually unlimited amounts of money into primary races. Unlimited independent expenditures have so far been much more successful in unseating incumbent Republican Members of Congress than it has been winning General Elections.
In the end, of course the relatively more diluted presence of Republicans in Republican districts - and the country's changing demographics -- may allow Democrats to win many currently Republican seats. What's more, Republican near term concern about primary challenges - and the stridency it breeds -- may alienate increasing numbers of moderate Republican leading independents. We've already seen this effect in the Presidential and Senate races and it would not be surprising that by 2014 many of the primary obsessed Republican incumbents are hoisted on their own petard in the General Election. Just ask Tea Party Members of Congress who were defeated in 2012, like Alan West and Joe Walsh. But in the near term, at least, there is also no question that many occupants of Republican seats appear far more concerned with primary challenges than they are with general elections.
If House Speaker Boehner is to be successful passing any form of compromise to avoid the "fiscal cliff" - either before the end of the year or after - he will need to convince Republican Members of the House that he is doing them a favor by bringing a bill the floor that can pass even with many Republicans voting no. That, of course requires that the deal is good enough to allow many Democrats to vote yes.
Boehner will get political cover for that kind of maneuver if a bill passes out of the Senate with bi-partisan support. But even then, he will certainly weigh whether he risks his otherwise certain re-election as Speaker on January 3rd if he acts before the country goes over the cliff at midnight, December 31.
Of course the many Republicans that will never support any form of tax compromise don't justify their position by explaining they are more concerned with primaries than they are of general elections. In fact they generally fall back on one of three myths that are themselves utter nonsense.
Myth #1 - You shouldn't tax the wealthy because they are "job creators". The plain fact is that no one invests money in any business if they do not think there are customers with money in their pockets to buy the products or services they produce.
Customers with money in their pockets are "job creators" - and the root of our current economic problems can be traced directly to the fact that everyday consumers are receiving a smaller and smaller percentage of the national economic pie and as a result have less ability to to buy the increasing number of products and services our economy can create. In fact, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product since the government started keeping records in 1947. And corporate profits have climbed to their highest levels since the 1960's.
Over the last two decades, per capita Gross Domestic Product has gone up; productivity per hour of work has gone up; but the median income of ordinary Americans has remained stagnant. That is only possible because all of the growth in our economy has been siphoned off by the top 2% of the population.
And it has meant that everyday people haven't had the money in their pockets to buy the increased numbers of goods and services that are the consequence of that increased productivity. Stagnation and slow economic growth has been the result.
Henry Ford had this right. For the economy to grow over time, workers need to be paid enough to buy the products they produce.
If you want the economy to grow, the fruits of economic growth must be spread equally throughout the economy - if not consumers won't have the money to buy and, as a consequence, investors won't invest.
Higher taxes on the wealthy - including higher estate taxes on fortunes left to the sons and daughters of multi-millionaires - are not "bad" for the economy - just the opposite. They help address the economic inequality that is the core problem in our economy.
Myth #2 - Our biggest problem is the federal deficit. This is just flat wrong. It is the economic equivalent of the medieval view that you should "bleed" patients when they are sick.
We have learned from centuries of economic history, that when an economy is recovering from a recession, the right medicine for sluggish economic demand is more fiscal stimulus - and in the short run that does not mean lower deficits.
More economic stimulus, of the type that the President proposed in the American Jobs Act over a year ago, puts money in people's pockets who can then spend it on more products and stimulate more investment. Austerity and reducing national debt will yield the same outcome we have recently seen in Europe - another recession. And that is exactly what the deficit hawks are likely to get if America slides of the fiscal cliff and stays there.
Right Wing deficit hawks are fond of warning that if we don't cut the deficit, the country could turn into Greece - or some other European country that can't pay it's bills. They ignore the fact that right now U.S. Treasury Bonds are considered the safest investments in the world, and interest rates are at a record low. They also ignore the fact that, unlike the Europeans, the American Federal Reserve can monetize the federal debt and assure that U.S. bond holders are always paid -- unless, of course, the Republicans refuse to pay the debts that we owe, which would be like committing economic Hara-Kiri.
In fact, the quickest way for America to become like Europe is a precipitous reduction of the federal spending. Ask the Brits how that worked out.
Finally, of course, let's remember that the way to reduce the deficit is not an inscrutable mystery. When Democrat Bill Clinton was President he did it, just a few short years ago. The recipe for success involved two factors: increasing revenue, especially from the wealthy, and growing the economy.
Today we would have to add, the need to control the spiraling increase in health care costs. While ObamaCare will make big steps in that direction, much more will be needed. Shifting costs to seniors and other consumers by cutting Medicare or Medicaid benefits is not controlling health care costs - it is simply shifting them from government to individuals. And what is needed is not more de-regulation of for-profit health care companies. In fact we ultimately need to follow the model of the Canadians - and most of the other industrial nations in the world - and provide a universal Medicare coverage to all Americans. Our system of private health insurance is simply too expensive. Americans, after all, pay 40% more than any other country per capita for health care and have outcomes that rank only 37th in the world.
Myth #3 - Government is always bad and- as Grover Norquist argues - must be shrunk so it can be drowned in a bathtub.
Let's ignore for a moment the fact that while Republicans talk about small government, they inevitably expand it when they control the White House - mostly in the form of larger military budgets.
Government, as Congressman Barney Frank says, is the name we give to the things we choose to do together--and that includes many of the most important things we do in our economy. From fire and police protection to providing free public education and health care for all, to building public infrastructure, to creating the Internet - government does a better, more efficient, more equitable job in many economic arenas than the private sector.
To hear the Republicans talk you wouldn't know it, but right now taxes are at their lowest levels since 1958.
Right now in America we need more government - more education, more roads and bridges, more mass transportation, more cancer research, more health care, more nutrition programs, more drug education and treatment - not less. More government shouldn't mean more regulation of our freedom - it should mean that when we co-operate together we have the ability to achieve more than if everyone is left to sink or swim. Government action is necessary to provide the foundation from which each person can individually excel.
The question of the type of society we want in America was squarely on the ballot in the election last November, and voters overwhelming voted for a society where we have each other's back - where we're all in this together, not all in this alone.
Progressives need to make all of these arguments to win the battle for the future. But let's remember that the unwillingness of most Republicans to compromise to avoid the "fiscal cliff" - or anything else - has less to do with their commitment to their ultra right principles than to the protection of their own political hides.
That being the case, there are only two ways to convince Republicans to compromise. One is to demonstrate that their obsession with primary challenges from the right will ultimately lead them to defeat in General Elections. The second is to defeat them so badly in the next General Election that they no longer have the power to impose the will of an extremist minority on the people of the United States.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.