Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Up against the cliff -- what words tell us -- Nov. 28, 2012 column


What if it hadn’t been a cliff that Ben Bernanke conjured up last February?

The Federal Reserve chairman used the phrase “fiscal cliff” to describe the drastic effects on the economy of automatic tax increases and spending cuts that will take place after Jan. 1, if Congress and the White House fail to agree on a deficit reduction plan.

He could have said, as some liberal Democrats do now, fiscal slope or curve or hill. Progressives hope downplaying the danger of the cliff will give President Barack Obama more spine in negotiating with the Republicans. 
Bernanke’s use of cliff in testimony on Capitol Hill seemed fresh, but it was a 1970s retread.

Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for the Boston Globe, tracked fiscal cliff to a Dallas Morning News editorial on June 16, 1975: "Who hasn't looked with horror at New York City's financial plight? The nation's biggest, richest city is about to go over the fiscal cliff if the state and federal governments don't lend a helping hand." 

Zimmer found other newspaper writers had climbed the fiscal cliff in the 1980s to describe their local budget battles.
With his visit to the cliff, Bernanke endowed with horror the prospect that Washington again will fail to deal with the nation’s economic problems. Naturally, the phrase caught on. It’s our own Mayan end of the world. 

Nobody imagined we’d still be staring into the canyon nine months later.

Calling it a curve instead of a cliff might not make reaching compromise in Washington any easier, but a more benign metaphor might prevent a sense of rising panic in some Americans.

The stock markets are nervous, and some people reportedly were so anxious about the looming consequences of cliff diving -- recession and unemployment over 9 percent – that they stayed home on Black Friday. Friends, that is no way to jumpstart the economy.

For many of us, fiscal cliff evokes the last scene in the movie “Thelma and Louise,” only now, 21 years later, we’re in the back seat of the Thunderbird, about to sail into the abyss.  

We stand by helplessly as talking heads say that the president and the House speaker again today did not meet face to face. The countdown continues to cliffageddon.

The fiscal cliff is the latest in a series of cinematic terms with political impact. Ronald Reagan brought us welfare queens, Barack Obama the bitter people clinging to their guns and religion, and Mitt Romney the 47 percent on the dole who see themselves as victims.

It’s possible the fiscal cliff won’t disappear with the New Year’s confetti. The president and Congress could do just enough to get us through the crisis and resume negotiations on the debt ceiling and tax and entitlement reforms next year. 

Speaking of entitlement reform, Republicans say Democrats must embrace cuts in safety net programs to reach a budget deal. Only a few months ago, though, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee urged GOP candidates to steer away from the very words entitlement reform.

“Do not say ‘entitlement reform,’ ’privatization,’ ‘every option is on the table,’” the campaign committee advised in an email in August, shortly after Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman, as his running mate, Politico reported. “Do say: ‘strengthen,’ ‘secure,’ ‘save,’ ‘preserve,’ ‘protect.’”

The goal was to distance Republican candidates from some of Ryan’s “reforms” of Social Security and Medicare, which were unpopular with older voters.

This week, Drew Altman, head of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank on health policy issues, suggested that news organizations resist using the phrase entitlement reform, even though politicians do.

The phrase makes any changes in Medicare and Medicaid that Democrats and Republicans agree on “sound more palatable and forward thinking,” Altman wrote on his blog.

Altman, a former welfare commissioner of New Jersey who worked on state and national welfare reform, said he’d been pleased years ago when reporters wrote of “welfare reform.”

“Welfare ‘overhaul’ would have been a much more neutral description but I admit that when I was selling my welfare reform program…I was more than happy for the media call it reform,” he wrote.

Words do matter. Now, can we reform the cliff?

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Ms Mercer is so right. Words do matter and if congress and the president can reach an agreement to reform the cliff or whatever, we all will be winnners.

    Excellent job Ms. Mercer, your column is timely and on-the-mark.