It Matters What We Call Things: Taking the Fiscal Cliff in Full Stride

With a nod to Frank Luntz, I would like to brainstorm some alternatives to the phrase “fiscal cliff,” which is actually an abbreviated version of “driving or stepping off a fiscal cliff.”

The most common alternatives that I have heard to date are “fiscal slope” and “fiscal curve.”  Although both phrases serve to eliminate the desperate, urgent connotations of “fiscal cliff,” neither is especially memorable. Neither will make anyone forget “fiscal cliff.” In fact, they are so bland that they may actually serve to remind people of “fiscal cliff.”

So what is needed is something that will make people forget “fiscal cliff.”

In an article for Labor Notes, Mark Brenner has suggested that the “fiscal cliff” ought to be called the “fiscal bluff.” That’s the sort of substitution that would make Frank Luntz smile and nod in approval. It not only completely defuses the situation of real urgency and hazard, but another meaning of “bluff,” beyond its referring to a deceptive posture, is actually a “very steep hill or small cliff.”

The problem, however, is that both the political establishment and the media have now spent most of the past year convincing everyone that the “fiscal cliff” is all too real. So it doesn’t seem likely that a simple change in labeling will change enough minds to bring some rationale perspective to the issue. (When the GOP started ramping up the demonization of “Obamacare,” Democrats and progressive commentators tried to defuse the loaded rhetoric by calling it by its actual name, “the Affordable Care Act.” But, ironically, it wasn’t until the president and his administration publicly embraced the term “Obamacare” that public sentiment started to shift gradually away from the partisan rancor that had attached to the term.)

As good as Brennan’s invention is, I cannot resist making some of my own. So here are my suggestions of things that involve sudden descents from great heights but sound more like someone on a roller coaster than someone stepping out of an Edvard Munch painting:

The Toonces Effect

Rendering the cat-astrophic comic. The car (I suddenly can’t recall if it was the same car or a succession of cars) went off the cliff week after week but apparently to no lasting ill effect. For, week after week, Toonces was back behind the wheel—with the same idiotic people riding in the car and expressing the same wide-eyed, round-mouthed terror at his inability to keep the car on the road. I trust that you can extend and complete the metaphor on your own.

But I will add that “The Toonces Effect” also sounds more than a little, if not a lot, like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel. In all of the Ludlum novels, an everyman with depths and capabilities revealed and honed under pressure confronts a sinister organization whose agents then pursue him relentlessly to prevent him from exposing its dark secrets. Since I seem to have been obsessing over the FiveThirtyEight blog for the last eight to ten months, I naturally (or unnaturally) imagine Nate Silver in the role. (In fact, since he seems to be better with numbers than anyone currently in government office or service, why hasn’t anyone asked him to take a look at this “fiscal cliff” stuff?)

Fiscal Parachuting

“Sky dive” would have negative connotations, though “supersonic sky dive” might cancel them out by appealing to our fascination with daredevils—especially since Felix Baumgartner did not turn into gristle when he recently broke the sound barrier falling from somewhere near the space station.

“Parachuting” suggests a soft landing, though anyone who has actually parachuted knows that the ground is unyielding and that the supposed softness of the landing reflects the much worse possibilities if the chute does not open. Along these same lines, the currency of such phrases as “golden parachute” permits associations with continued financial security, or even a propitious financial windfall, after things have gone bad.

By the way, when I was looking up synonyms for “sky diving,” I found “falling for leisure.” It doesn’t work here, but since the Far Right has been trying to recast turning Medicare into a voucher system as “saving Medicare,” perhaps they can downplay the serious consequences of broken hips and other bones for the elderly by recasting the falls as just another way that the elderly fill their leisure time. (When I was a child and learning to do just about anything that required balance and coordination—riding a bike, roller skating, ice skating, running, walking—my mother used to explain my bandaged knees, elbows, and chin by saying, “He took another spill.”)

Fiscal Hang-Gliding or Fiscal Parasailing

Addressing the budget deficit becomes something akin to what we do on vacation, in particular on some beautiful Caribbean island. “Fiscal Parasailing” may in fact be the title of a book by Richard Branson or a novel by Robert Ludlum.

Fiscal Bungee Jumping

This phrase has the advantage of suggesting the constant up and down movement associated with almost everything economic.

A Fiscal Tijuana Dare

This alternative suggests the cliff diving without using the negatively connotative words “cliff” or “dive.” And before you rush to tell me what else it might suggest, those things can be cured with aspirin, Imodium, or penicillin—usually with little to no permanent harm done

Fiscal Base Jumping

Although this extreme sport is actually more dangerous than parachuting, hang-gliding, or parasailing, not as many people have as clear an idea of what it involves, and the word “base” suggests a certain solidity—that is, that the enthusiast at least starts out with something much more solid than air under his feet. Indeed, neither “base” nor “jumping” suggests a potentially very lethal activity, Instead, the phrase suggests something done on a first or second date—something that hints at the suicidal but is a whole lot of fun at the same time—a way of finding out quickly if you are both nuts, both chicken-livered, or simply incompatible.

Doing a Fiscal Wallenda

I don’t know about you, but every time that I hear the word “Wallenda,” I start to smile.

On the other hand, we can flip the direction of the metaphor and describe the challenge as:

Fiscal Wall-Climbing

This phrase has the advantage of suggesting something outdoorsy and rugged but done in a climate-controlled building, with all sorts of safety harnesses and with medical help readily available.]

Fiscal Buildering

“Buildering” is the term from climbing the seemingly sheer facades of glass and steel skyscrapers by relying totally on finger and toe holds. It sort of echoes the slogan “We Built It” (which is so inane that it should probably be changed to “We Builded It”). But since “buildering” is not a widely used slang term, it has the great advantage of inherent ambiguity.

Fiscal Pole-Vault, Fiscal High Jump, or Fiscal Long Jump

I can readily amuse myself by imagining the leaders of both parties in both the Senate and the House attempting to compete in either of these events. Although they would, for obvious reasons, clearly prefer to golf, such an exhibition might give fresh meaning to the phrase “our national circus.” But Paul Ryan, with his washboard abs, would probably win going away; so we wouldn’t want any deals riding on the outcome.

Since the Far Right is so fond of making analogies between personal finances and the federal budget, we might also call the “fiscal cliff” simply a “cash-flow problem.” That phrase suggests something more momentary than permanent—something that will be fixed by Friday when Uncle Sam gets his next paycheck. It’s a phrase that individuals have borrowed from business bookkeeping because it sounds less frivolous than “I’ve got only a couple of bucks left in my wallet (or in my checking account, or to my name).”

Finally, I should note that, for some political figures and media commentators, “fiscal cliff” has not been frightening enough. Writing for the New York Times, Anne Lowery uses the alternative “Debtpocalypse,” though in a context that makes it clear that it is not her own coinage—that someone else has been responsible for introducing it. Although it is certainly a tongue-twister, I am not sure whether that makes it more likely to heighten the general sense of alarm or to render ridiculous the whole enterprise of trying to heighten the public’s sense of alarm.

On the other hand, a slang synonym for cliff diving or cliff jumping is “tombstoning.” If the goal is to scare the crap out of people, that will work.

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