Charged with making the economic situation so bleak and scary that Congress might actually be tempted to do its job, the Metaphor Utilization and Standardization Board was charged with coming up with some pithy description of the nation’s economic peril, the better to prompt action.
Thus, the fiscal cliff was born. Unfortunately, it had problems from the start.
For one thing, it is hard to imagine a fiscal cliff. What is it exactly? Understanding the cliff is not the hard part of the comprehension riddle. After all, we have all seen our share of different cliffs and some of us have fallen off them (alcohol was not involved, Your Honor). There are chalky cliffs, icy cliffs, towering cliffs, jagged cliffs, to name but a few, but until now never a fiscal cliff.
What is a fiscal cliff made of? Is it bundles of cash piled to a great height? Is it copies of the IOUs on the debt we owe China, together with a few fortune cookies saying, “You are broke!” Is it a mountain of devalued stocks and bonds? Is it a stack of luxury cars and boats as seen on the Wealth Channel? Is it accountants making a human pyramid? Is it millions of bankers’ briefcases placed one atop the other?
You see the problem. No explanation is given as to the meaning of the fiscal cliff, yet we were invited to be very scared about falling off it. The only good thing about the term is that it’s better than the word “sequestration.” Now there’s a boring word fit only for government work. Sequestration is definitely not a town in the Pacific Northwest where Sasquatch goes on vacation. That at least would be exciting for the locals.
Sequestration means enforced spending cuts that go into effect across the board unless Congress comes up with an alternative — this because a super committee of lawmakers previously wasn’t super enough to leap over a tall building of debt in a single bound. Taken together with taxes going back up to pre-George W. Bush levels if not acted upon, that would be the falling off the fiscal cliff to the valley of misery below.
As for me, I would like to do my patriotic part and be scared, but the metaphor of the fiscal cliff has failed me. This is what you get when government committees write metaphors. Next they will be taking over similes.
Congress did something — for once — and the crisis has been averted.
But I look at the long term, because I believe in American exceptionalism. I believe that America, despite the exceptional dimwits in Congress, has an exceptional talent for muddling through.
My hope is that next time the national underwear is in a knot the Metaphor Utilization and Standardization Board will listen to private sector suggestions for frightening Congress and the public. (My services are available for a modest commission.)
How much more alarming would the situation have been if, instead of the fiscal cliff, the metaphor had been made more potent to the ears of its intended audience? After people got their hopes up that the world was going to end, according to ancient Mayan calendar-makers, the warning of a fiscal cliff seemed rather insipid.
As it was, the fiscal cliff was frightening only to those afraid of heights. But Americans have tons of different phobias and fears — from being tickled by a feather, to being locked up in a small box with squirrels, to falling into an outhouse pit while in the act of trying to reach for an old Reader’s Digest.
Instead of a fiscal cliff, how about warning of a deadline for a feather duster being placed under the armpits of the U.S. economy, or for we the people being placed in an MRI machine infested with ravenous squirrels, or simply for the prospect that the fiscal doo-doo was going to suck everybody under? Now that would have gotten America’s attention and alerted members of Congress that it was do or die.
Happy New Year to all and remember that the choice going forward is either to laugh or to cry.
Reg Henry writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.