On MSNBC’s 12/12/12 Morning Joe, Penn President Amy Gutmann, HOM’04, cited compromise as a potential force to break up the nation’s financial logjam.

“If we can compromise on fiscal-cliff measures,” she said, “ it will help us craft legislation on other important matters like immigration reform.”

Her hopeful prediction raised gauzy memories of deceased Wharton marketing professor Reavis Cox. When I arrived at Wharton in the mid-50s to pursue an MBA, Dr. Cox, a national figure, headed Wharton’s Marketing Department. An academic veteran, he’d already logged 20 years teaching Penn grads and undergrads. Although eager to learn, I had nothing to offer but a B.A. in English and two-plus years of active duty as a U.S. Marine first lieutenant. I knew little of business and less of the marketing concepts he described–concepts like “opportunity cost.”

Dr. Amy Gutmann, HOM’04

But the moment I heard Dr. Gutmann speak of the chance to reform our immigration policy, I saw myself back in Dr. Cox’s Marketing Management class listening to him discourse on opportunity cost. His ideas, still with me, cast an unflattering light on the vast amount of unproductive time today’s legislators have spent on fiscal cliff matters. Their unwavering focus on taxes and spending cuts has imposed on our country a burdensome opportunity cost.

Looked upon as the act of weighing an action against its unchosen alternative, opportunity cost plays a necessary role in helping us make economic choices. It places the selected option on a scale alongside the passed-over option. Yes, the selected option provides benefits. If it didn’t, we would never have chosen it. But what opportunities have been lost by not selecting that other action? The answer helps ensure the efficient employment of limited resources.

It motivates me to ask, “What has the country lost as a result of Congress’s single-minded attention to the fiscal cliff?”

To be sure, fiscal responsibility is of critical importance. But sadly, our legislators have fixed their attention on government spending and debt limits to the neglect of other important policy matters like immigration. The DREAM Act, an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors, surfaced in an early form more than 10 years ago. It is yet to become law under that name.

Immigration is important, especially to the United States. People wishing to migrate make the U.S. their first choice three to one over the U.K., the second preference. “We’re a nation of immigrants,” falls daily from the lips of politicians and TV pundits. Yet the subject remains an unending source of conflict.

To the nations’ relief, Congress passed New Year’s Day legislation that broke the fiscal deadlock. But other budgetary issues—like health care costs—remain unresolved. Talks about our multitrillion debt and the need for spending cuts are virtually guaranteed to continue in 2013. While these talks go on, the subject of opportunity cost looms. What policy priorities are being passed over? Is it asking too much of our legislators to avoid lost opportunity and in 2013 deal with more than one matter at a time?