Watch out be­low! It’s time to step away from ‘cliff’ talk

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - From the left Mon­day Tues­day Wed­nes­day Thurs­day Dowd writes forthe New York Times. Fri­day Satur­day Sun­day


end of the world never comes at a con­ve­nient time. It never comes, for in­stance, when you’re sit­ting in front of a blank com­puter screen try­ing to think of a col­umn.

But the end is nigh, ac­cord­ing to an­cient Mayans and Washington man­darins.

We have reached the quiv­er­ing moment of truth that Jon Ste­wart calls “Cliff­poca­lypsemaged­donacaust.”

How­ever the Mayan pre­dic­tion and the fis­cal cliff work out in the next few days, I hope we are talk­ing about the end of talk­ing about the end.

It’s te­dious to al­ways be sus­pended in midair, like Wile E. Coy­ote or Thelma and Louise. The at­tempts by some to con­tin­u­ally whirl the whole Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion into a state of apoc­a­lyp­tic ex­cite­ment are ex­haust­ing.

We have enough real cliffhang­ers — Will Car­rie and Brody de­scend into crazi­ness to­gether or go to a movie and chill, go­ing zero dark flirty at “Zero Dark Thirty”? — with­out cre­at­ing fake ones.

There’s a new Amer­i­can trend in hys­te­ria. Ev­ery­thing now is in ital­ics, punc­tu­ated by ex­cla­ma­tion points!!! As en­ter­tain­ing as Car­rie Mathi­son’s bouts of hys­te­ria have been in “Home­land,” stir­ring up hys­te­ria in real life, whether to draw clicks, eye­balls or votes, is not a good idea.

Cliff dwellers in our so­ci­ety may think that fac­ing the guil­lo­tine fo­cuses the mind. But the cliff metaphor is so overused it makes me want to walk off one. Don’t even men­tion Cliff Clavin, Cliff Huxtable, Cliff Robert­son, Jimmy Cliff or Heathcliff (ei­ther on the moors, in Cliffs Notes or in the funny pa­pers).

If your Christ­mas presents don’t come from Ama­zon in time, you’re go­ing over the gift cliff. If your boyfriend bails, you’re go­ing over the ro­mance cliff. If he comes back, you could be go­ing over the mar­riage cliff.

Jour­nal­ists now have to add an ex­tra coup de grace (“Fis­cal cliff crash”) or dou­ble metaphor (“Clock is tick­ing for fis­cal cliff”) or raff­ish car­toons to juice things up. The new cover of The Econ­o­mist features Un­cle Sam, wav­ing a Jack Daniels bot­tle, with the Statue of Lib­erty, wear­ing cool shades and smok­ing a doo­bie, plung­ing into the Grand Canyon in a red, white and blue Thun­der­bird with the li­cense plate “Debt 1.”

Other metaphors have been sug­gested: “fis­cal ob­sta­cle course,” “debt bomb,” “aus­ter­ity bomb.” But we’re stuck in the year of clif­fian think­ing.

There are clif­fi­ans, who pre­dict dire

Scot Le­high

Paul Krug­man

Dana Milbank

Mau­reen Dowd con­se­quences if a deal is not reached, and anti-clif­fi­ans. But no mat­ter if you’re into Keynes, Krug­ma­nia or Ayn Ryanism, look­ing at things as a cliff is not the most con­struc­tive way to live. It’s sheer mad­ness. Apoc­a­lypse is a very bad place in which to think clearly about any­thing.

There are peo­ple in both par­ties who have wanted to stay on a war foot­ing for years, a Manichaean bat­tle be­tween good and evil, right and wrong.

But scar­ing peo­ple is gen­er­ally not a good way to get peo­ple to un­der­stand things. Es­pe­cially in grave crises like a nu­clear threat or a ter­ror­ist at­tack, you need calm peo­ple who don’t think the world is go­ing to end.

Lin­coln wasn’t cliffy. As the new Steven Spiel­berg movie shows, Lin­coln had a goal and pur­sued it me­thod­i­cally through var­i­ous means, some shady. He wasn’t in­ter­ested in hys­te­ria. It had no po­lit­i­cal use for him.

The BBC ex­am­ined the et­y­mol­ogy of the phrase of the moment. The lex­i­cog­ra­pher Ben Zim­mer dis­cov­ered that an 1893 ed­i­to­rial in The Chicago Tri­bune warned: “The free sil­ver shriek­ers are striv­ing to tum­ble the United States over the same fis­cal precipice.”

Zim­mer traced the first use of “fis­cal cliff” to the prop­erty sec­tion of The New York Times in 1957, in an ar­ti­cle about peo­ple overex­tend­ing their fi­nances to buy their first home. Ben Ber­nanke im­printed the term on the pub­lic con­scious­ness last Fe­bru­ary, point­ing omi­nously to­ward Jan. 1.

But Derek Thompson, the busi­ness ed­i­tor at The At­lantic, told the BBC that if you had to go topo­graph­i­cal, a slope or a hill was more ac­cu­rate.

“You talk about a cliff, it’s ex­tremely sud­den and the sec­ond you step off the edge you plunge to your death. We’re not go­ing to fall off any­thing.”

Lan­guage is im­por­tant, he said, be­cause it can pro­voke a pan­icky deal rather than a smart deal. He said a more apt metaphor might be di­et­ing af­ter binge­ing, as in “fis­cal fast.”

“There will be a short, sharp re­ces­sion in early to mid­dle of next year, which is more like fall­ing on your face af­ter fast­ing too vig­or­ously, and then the econ­omy is go­ing to grow,” he said.

The really bad news is that, even if we sur­vive this abyss, there are more coming, with the debt ceil­ing cliff and the spend­ing bill cliff dead ahead. Once you start with the cliffs, you can fall into cliffin­ity — with end­less cliff riffs on the hori­zon. Cliff talk is not cool talk.

Gail Collins

John Young

Leonard Pitts

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