Floating on a sea of misplaced metaphors
It’s one of the oldest plot devices in the movies – the heroes are on a stricken stagecoach that is careening towards a precipitous cliff. As the ledge approaches, the tension becomes unbearable until, at the final moment, disaster is somehow averted.
This is what many had been expecting to unfold in Washington last week as we were forced to sit through the not- terribly-exciting denouement of the dreaded “Fiscal cliff”.
The long-running saga was due to reach a climax. Democrats and Republicans were negotiating over the spending and tax measures that were due to expire at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Talks needed to come to a resolution before the clock struck 12, or the US economy would face an immediate calamity. It was called a fiscal cliff; after all, what else was going to happen?
What actually happened was more like the stagecoach sprouting wings, as talks continued into the wee hours of 2013, with bleary-eyed politicians finally reaching some variety of compromise on taxes and even postponing a deal on sequestration or spending cuts. The entire drama was, in many ways, the worst sort of wonkish political brinkmanship, a tedious game of partisan Washington grandstanding.
While the whole point of the cliff as a plot device is to force some sort of resolution, in the world of Beltway politics, it seems it’s just another relatively arbitrary deadline that can be blown off by shameless career politicians who like to star in unnecessary dramas of their own creation. They probably think this is what leadership and politics is all about, but they shouldn’t go undermining the meaning of the word “cliffhanger” while they’re at it.
That might seem like a trivial complaint, but you don’t need to be a literary theorist to appreciate the importance of metaphor in how we understand things, particularly complicated and/or tedious things such as sequestration and tax measures.
The “fiscal cliff” was a poor metaphor, given the circumstances, but it was certainly an exciting image, and that was all that was needed for it to become ubiquitous.
It turns out the phrase gained currency, pun totally intended, when US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke coined it during a congressional committee in February. He might have said “fiscal timebomb”, of course, or “explosives-filled fiscal egg timer” if he was feeling creative, but he went with the cliff metaphor instead. Of course, the situation was a real one, and it needed some reasonably succinct label, and Bernanke’s off-the-cuff description stuck.