Guess What? There Is No Fiscal Cliff

Mayday! Mayday! Watch out! There is a “fiscal cliff!”  We’re headed straight for it! It will be the ruin of all America!

Just as soon as the 2012 presidential election was over, media outlets had a huge vacuum to fill and nothing to fill it with, at least that’s what I have to assume since cable news is 24/7 fiscal cliff coverage ever since President Obama was declared the winner.

But guess what. Despite the constant drumbeat of scary cliff talk, there is no such thing as a “fiscal cliff.” Yes, we have a serious budget situation thanks, mostly, to the tax cuts given to us by former President George W. Bush, as well as the tinkering his administration did with the tax code.

So what is this “fiscal cliff” all the kids are talking about these days?

According to the Center for Federal Tax Policy:

“The fiscal cliff is the culmination of a decade of “temporary” tax and budget bills that have postponed resolution of key policy differences. Should the tax code be used to heavily promote income distribution or aim instead to raise revenue in the least distortive manner possible? How large should federal spending be? Should [The Affordable Care Act] be modified or repealed? Should there be a federal estate tax and if so, at what level? Should the payroll tax be reduced and if so, how should we fund Social Security and Medicare? What should Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid look like as the population ages?”

Is that a cliff? Only if you call it one. And then keep repeating it until everyone uses your shorthand that puts an image in people’s minds of a looming catastrophe. This “cliff” has been around for decades. We haven’t fallen off of it yet, and we won’t in 2013.

A cliff by any other name? We could also call it a chance to craft a long-term, bipartisan economic plan to prevent this from happening again.  But that’s not as fun to say and doesn’t conjure up a visual image with a visceral gut reaction in quite the same way as “fiscal cliff.”  No matter what we actually call our current situation, the end result is the same —  if no agreement is reached to get the federal budget in a better place, many Americans face huge tax increases in 2013.

How each side chooses terminology to discuss issues is important, though, in how the game is plated on Capitol Hill. The conservative right is particularly good at labeling and branding. For some reason, Republicans are much better than the Democrats at creating craftily worded catch-phrases that sort of describe what an issue is, but actually distort what the discussion is about. When talking heads and politicians say “fiscal cliff,” they want you to think it means that our country will go broke, plunging us into a bigger economic mess than the one we’re been struggling to climb out of since 2008.

Using the term fiscal cliff over and over and over is a game the political right likes to play to get you to buy into their version of the facts. Some of my other messaging favorites from the political past include describing the estate tax as a “death tax” and dubbing certain forms of late term abortions as “partial birth abortions.” And let’s not forget that health care reform was continually described by the right as a “government takeover of health care.”  These catch-phrases channel one of the GOP’s most notorious spin-masters Frank Luntz, whose philosophy on the landing page of his website proclaims, “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

And that’s what the never-ending repetition of the phrase “fiscal cliff” is all about. It’s to scare us into buying into their solutions to those scary words. If Republicans can convince voters to hear something frightening about heading off a ledge instead of having to talk about compromise or budget talks, that’s what they’re sticking with.

For many Americans, there will be significant out-of-pocket tax increases, but it’s not a cliff. Families with median incomes for their respective states will see hikes from around $3,300 to almost $7,000. But that’s thanks mostly to that patchwork of tax cuts since Bush II took office, the GOP being the lapdogs of  Grover ‘sign my no tax pledge or I will ruin your political career’ Norquist, and the lack of backbone generally inside the DC Beltway to take on the hard issues when it’s necessary because it’s not to anyone’s political benefit.

There is no cliff.  Uncle Sam might need to tighten his belt and rethink how entitlements like Social Security and Medicare are run, but there is no Wile E. Coyote moment awaiting us.

What we do have is a long road stretching out in front of us; it’s only a precipice if you buy into the partisan messaging. While I agree with my Broad Side compatriot Diana Prichard that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, it has become that, in part, because of the messaging and using the term fiscal cliff, which is now permanently seared in our minds.

Image via The Fiscal Times

  • Interesting perspective. Having just returned from two days on The Hill with legislators from both sides of the aisle, my impression is that while it may be a partisan issue in the media, it is not one within the halls of both the Senate and House. Which, as I’m sure you can imagine, was rather refreshing.

    That said, I understand we live in very different regions with very different demographics, but 3-7k is, quite literally, a fiscal cliff for most of the American families I know. For that reason alone, I’m not sure the moniker is so far off.

  • helen

    Death Squads, anyone? Frankenstorm? Fiscal cliff? Whether the left said it first or the right, we journalists quickly glom onto catchphrases that we hope will be shorthand in headlines and in reports of less than 2:00 minutes long. And we hope that by printing it often enough, the American public will somehow remember what we are talking about before we bore them with economic jargon. OH, and then there’s Twitter. The place that has forced all of us to think in 140 characters or less. Even my most stringent journalism instructors gave us 250 words!

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