Sorry, But “Fiscal Cliff” is Here to Stay

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Ryan Cooper is unhappy that we lefties haven’t been able to agree on a catchphrase to describe what will happen on January 1:

Ben Bernanke came up with the phrase “fiscal cliff,” and it stuck. This phrase is deeply misleading—indeed, it was probably deliberately exaggerated—so liberals tried to come up with a more accurate catchphrase. They tried, but failed for lack of unity. Paul Waldman called it the “austerity trap.” Chris Hayes called it the “fiscal curb.” Paul Krugman called it the “austerity bomb.” Ezra Klein, most notably, made a major push for “austerity crisis,” but even the mighty Wonkblog couldn’t get everyone to agree.

I think things are both better and worse than Ryan suggests. Worse, because “fiscal slope” was kinda sorta catching on well before any of these renaming initiatives started up, and we could have simply adopted that. But no: as Ryan says, we liberals just couldn’t rally around a phrase that wasn’t quite right. We insisted on coming up with something better.

At the same time, this really doesn’t speak as poorly of liberals as Ryan thinks. I’ve heard versions of his complaint dozens of times, but the truth is that making up a new name for something is really, really hard. New names almost never catch on, period, and when they do it’s usually organic. They don’t catch on because someone runs a contest or because someone with a megaphone forces us into it. And they especially don’t catch on when the new phrase sounds forced and artificial, as they almost always do.

Conservatives have had a few successes over the past couple of decades pushing new terms into the public discourse—”death tax,” “partial birth abortion”—and I know that lefties are jealous of this. But it doesn’t happen very often. Liberals scored a hit with “top 1 percent” last year, but that was a success because it happened organically. There was no Frank Luntzian character behind it. Likewise, I think that Dave Roberts’ “climate hawk” might catch on. It’s not organic, but it is pretty natural sounding. It has a chance of entering the standard lexicon because it’s easy to use, doesn’t require explanation, and sounds punchy.

And another thing: it always takes time for new terms to become widely used. I don’t bother using any of the fiscal cliff alternatives that Ryan mentions because (a) let’s be honest, they all sound stupid, and (b) I’d have to add a parenthetical explanation every time I used one of them. The fiscal cliff fight is only going to last a few months, and for better or worse, everyone knows what I’m talking about when I say fiscal cliff. There’s just not enough time for an alternative to catch on.


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