"The Americans will always do the right thing," Winston Churchill reportedly said, "after they have exhausted all the alternatives."
We hope that's still true, but it seems increasingly doubtful.
A good argument can now be made that Congress is the biggest danger to our economy and our national security, and the low-key chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, told the House Financial Services Committee as much last week.
"Under current law, on January 1, 2013, there's going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases," he told committee members.
On that date, regardless of which man is elected president in November, the Bush tax cuts will expire and $1.2 billion in automatic spending cuts established in last year's debt-ceiling agreement will go into effect — automatically.
The cuts were intended as a sort of doomsday machine to force compromise. Instead, we appear ready to blow up the machine.
And that's about the last thing our fragile economy needs right now. Bernanke, and most economists, agree this is not the time for reckless, brainless, autopilot decision-making.
Reasonable people would not act this way, and the overwhelming majority of Americans are reasonable people. Polls show they want Congress to compromise on a sensible package of slowly increasing spending cuts and tax hikes, and begin getting our fiscal house in order.
Instead, Democrats in Congress announced last week that they are perfectly willing to drive off the Jan. 1 cliff if Republicans won't agree to some revenue increases.
Republicans, meanwhile, say they are going to their graves with their no-tax pledge intact.
Both parties are operating under the delusion that if they can only win the next election they can jam whatever they want down the other guy's throat.
Here's the problem: In a nation divided 51-49 on everything, no one really deserves to get everything they want. No thin majority can simply lord it over a large minority, at least not for long.
They can jam away, but voters will go to the polls in two years and put a quick end to that. Witness the huge victory Democrats and Barack Obama experienced in 2008, followed by the huge Congressional gains by Republicans in 2010.
The two political parties are playing like it's a winner-take-all game, which is clearly impossible in a nation as closely divided as this one.
With the serious problems we face, we need serious people willing to make meaningful, long-term compromises.
Instead, Congress is now spending its days passing pointless bills with no chance of passage designed only to embarrass the opposing presidential candidate and party.
In effect, they are killing time by playing politics.
In 2010, the Simpson-Bowles Commission, made up of Republicans and Democrats, came up with a blueprint for change.
The plan would have reduced budget deficits to 2.2 percent of GDP and cut the federal debt by $4 trillion over a decade.
A majority of the 18 commission members agreed progress could not be made without a combination of serious spending cuts and tax increases.
Former Sen. Alan Simpson said the plan "harpooned every whale in the ocean," meaning it spread the pain of entitlement cuts and tax increases far and wide.
It recognized that we were living in an era of unsustainable borrowing which must be followed by an era of reality and austerity.
Yet, two years later, the president and Congress have ignored the plan and we are on the lip of another cliff, and this whole drama is getting very stale.
The paralysis threatens our economy, security and sanity, and is giving a bad name to representative democracy as an effective form of governance.
As Winston Churchill would probably agree, we have exhausted all of the alternatives. It's now time to do something, preferably the right thing — compromise and move on with the nation's business.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.