There Is No Fiscal Cliff: A Lesson in Metaphor

If you live in Washington, DC, you most certainly hear and read about the “fiscal cliff” on a daily basis — especially as the “impending doom” inches closer. If you don’t live in DC, you’ve probably still heard/read about the fiscal cliff because there are national implications. I wonder — did you stop to think about the “fiscal cliff?” That is, does the metaphor accurately represent what it is that we’re talking about?

From Matt Yglesias:

A salient fact about non-metaphorical cliffs is that falling over them is generally irreversible. If the cliff is high enough that falling off of it would kill you, then if you fall off you’re going to die and that’s the end of it. The “fiscal cliff” by contrast isn’t like that at all.

And from Steve Kornacki:

That’s not a good way to understand what we’re facing. The reality is that the “cliff” is really more of a slope. A gradual slope. It works like this:

If nothing happens between now and the end of the year, then on January 1, the Bush tax cuts will expire, the alternative minimum tax will reach further down the income ladder, and payroll tax rates will revert to 6.2 percent. (They’re 4.2 percent now — that was part of the big Obama tax cut that no one ever seemed to notice or give him credit for.)

But — and this is the critical point — this won’t all happen at once.

It’s not like John and Jane Taxpayer will wake up on January 1 and be socked with a bill for $3,000. Only the payroll hike would go into effect right away.

It would be months before most taxpayers were actually hit with higher income tax rates or the AMT [Alternative Minimum Tax].

Ditto for the big, scary spending cuts you’re hearing about, which will be phased in over the year, and even into future years.

And why is this important?

Because it means there’s time after January 1 for Congress and the White House to reach a deal — lots of time.

I’ve written about the importance of words, but when it comes to instances like this, the words we use are even more important. The fact that so many of us are constantly using this metaphor to discuss the impending changes to America‘s fiscal policy makes the metaphor that much more entrenched. And by extension, that also makes those people who only hear about these changes in passing that much more frightened (by the metaphor).

So, when you hear dramatic metaphors, especially from politicians, be sure to look into the details to decide whether someone’s using hyperbole to scare the public.

Oh — and in case you’re interested, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

The greater danger is that misguided fears about the economy going over a “fiscal cliff” into another Great Recession will lead policymakers to believe they have to take some action, no matter how ill-conceived and damaging to long-term deficit reduction, before the end of the year, rather than craft a balanced plan that supports the economic recovery in the short term and promotes fiscal stabilization in the intermediate and longer run.

Published by Jeremiah Stanghini

Jeremiah's primary aim is to provide readers with a new perspective. In the same vein as the "Blind Men and the Elephant," it can be difficult to know when one is looking at the big picture or if one is simply looking at a 'tusk' or a 'leg.' He writes on a variety of topics: psychology, business, science, entertainment, politics, history, etc.

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