Ben Bernanke may be a brilliant economist, but as a wordsmith, he's responsible for popularizing what has become one of the most grating clichés of modern times.
It was the Federal Reserve chairman who warned of a "fiscal cliff" back in February, when he testified before Congress. Here's how those two mellifluous words flowed from his mouth then: "Under current law, on January 1, 2013, there's going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases. I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it all happen at one date."
Congress has figured out no such thing, of course, which is why we're still talking about Bernanke's fiscal cliff—and twisting the unhappy metaphor into worse and worse constructions.
There are two problems here: First, there's no intuitive connection between government finances and the geologic formation known as a cliff. It's an incongruous concept, like something you dream about after having too many glasses of wine: Your mother-in-law on a Harley, or bifocals on your pet schnauzer.
Second, to satisfy our need for drama, somebody or something needs to approach this cliff in an uncontrolled fashion, as if it's one of those old Road Runner cartoons. Since the cliff is "massive," the consequences of going over it need to be catastrophic. If said thing or person does go over the cliff (without an Acme parachute handy) there will presumably be carnage at the bottom.
Bernanke himself hasn't supplied many of these metaphorical details, which has loosed the most fearsome rhetoricians in the land to turn this lone analogy into a vivid tableau depicting virtually everything that can possibly be done on or off a cliff, along with some things that can't. Here's a sampling:
Investing firm BlackRock told clients that the November elections created a "cliffhanger" (get it?), because ongoing divided government means there will be no easy way to avert the fiscal cliff. BlackRock laid out three scenarios: A skydive off the cliff, a bungee jump off the cliff, and a hard stop or screeching halt right before the republic plunges over the cliff. Complete with exclamation points in a thought bubble.
Research by the Tax Policy Center explains what will happen if the nation topples off the cliff. Among other things, taxes will rise by nearly $3,500 per household.
On the radio program "Marketplace," CNBC analyst John Carney suggested that if we do go off the cliff, there might be a trampoline at the bottom that allows us to bounce back up, after Congress passes a bunch of retroactive new measures uncliffing the cliff. Of course, if you don't bounce all the way back up on the first rebound, you'll end up stranded at the bottom all the same. (With the bungee jump, at least somebody can pull you back up, though you better hope it's not Mitch McConnell.)
In "cliff notes" added to some of its regular research reports, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has explained various scenarios, including the possibility that the cliff gets extended so that Congress has longer to figure out what to do about it. (Only in America would we create a cliff, then move it around to suit our tastes.)
But wait! It may not be a cliff at all. Some economists insist that it's more like a slope or a hill, which is more metaphorically soothing, since you can roll down a hill and survive without getting smashed to bits. Although you might still need Obamacare if it turns out to be "a long, bone-jarring slope into a rock-strewn ravine," as the Tulsa World described it. Ouch.
Others aren't playing along with the gravitational concept at all. Liberal commentator Robert Reich says the fiscal cliff is really a game of chicken, apparently because he prefers ancient, exhausted clichés to ones that still have a few months of overuse left in them.
Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC thinks it's a fiscal curb, not a fiscal cliff, because the worst thing that could happen if we tumble over it is that we trip into oncoming traffic and get our noggin scuffed by a taxicab. He has even created an "off the curb" campaign that has caught on like, well, most bad clichés uttered by economists.
Meanwhile, the unimaginative analysts at the boring old Congressional Budget Office call the whole cosmic exploding financial calamity merely this: "policies contributing to fiscal tightening in 2013." Hmmm. When you take away the plunging and the screeching, it doesn't really sound that ominous after all.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.