The fiscal cliff is a harbinger of the earthquakes to come
For a few days there, we heard nothing but fiscal cliff. The phrase sprang suddenly out of nowhere but seemed like it had been around for an aeon.
Economics reporters loved it, and deployed it in a way that implied its meaning was obvious and universally understood. The listener was left with a sense of having fallen asleep, perhaps for years, and awaking to a story that had moved into its final chapter.
“Fiscal cliff” has connotations of apocalypse, but also a sense of realism. It seems to summon up a fundamental truthfulness about where we have spent the past five years, evoking a system at the end of the line.
Disappointingly, it turns out to have a more restricted meaning, particular to the US economy. It is as if, from some instinct of self-preservation, the system deliberately concocted the phrase for the purpose of disposing of the ideas it brings to mind – like a winter bug vaccine which provokes minor fever for a day or two while inoculating against the deeper implications.
Here, the talk is mainly of green shoots. Another year, another narrative. The calendar clacks on, so it must be time for Act Three, when, as we know, the cavalry comes over the hill.
But there is no cavalry. There is only another hill, and behind that another, and not a horseman in sight to cast a cold eye on our situation.
From the outset of the present crisis, there has been a determined effort to perpetuate a misdiagnosis. Most of us, most of the time, swallowed whole the idea that what was happening was a cyclical dipping – hence “recession”, “depression”, “slump”, words oddly comforting because they seem at least to place the problem in a diagnostic history.
But there persisted this deeper feeling that what was happening was unprecedented, was neither cyclical nor run-of-the-mill, but was instead a profound systemic failure deriving as much from the hearts and minds of human beings as the rattle and hum of the system.
Occasionally, someone would say: this is not an economic crisis, but an anthropological one. But no one seemed to know what this meant, or to have enthusiasm for pursuing its logic. Because the problem was regarded as the preserve of economists and accountants, the focus remained on the system as understood hitherto. Months became years, and the same discussions and arguments recurred as though on a loop. If we did as we were told – we were told – the green shoots would come.