Fiscal cliffs and the metaphors of politics


With the Republicans forcing the government shutdown this week, I was reminded of this piece from the beginning of the year, discussing the flawed metaphors we use to understand politics.


From The Irish Times, January 5th, 2013

It’s one of the oldest plot devices in the movies – the heroes are on a stricken stagecoach or a train, and it’s careening towards a precipitous cliff. As the ledge approaches, panic takes hold and the tension becomes unbearable until, at the final possible moment, somehow disaster is averted.

Such a drama was what many had been expecting to unfold in Washington last week as we were all forced to sit through the not-terribly-exciting denouement of the dreaded “Fiscal Cliff”!

The long-running saga was finally due to reach a climax – Democrats and Republicans were negotiating over the spending and tax measures that were about to expire at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and talks needed to come to a resolution before the clock struck 12, otherwise the US economy would face immediate calamity. It was called a fiscal cliff, after all, what else was going to happen?

Well, what actually happened was more like the stagecoach releasing a parachute or the train sprouting wings, as talks continued into the smallest 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 brinksmanship, 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 inside-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. Which is what they probably think leadership and politics is all about, but they shouldn’t go undermining the very meaning of the word “cliffhanger” while they’re at it.

That might seem like a very 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 like sequestration and tax measures. The “fiscal cliff” was a rather 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 used it during congressional committee back 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.

In the event, however, the whole thing felt more like “fiscal quicksand”, to pick another frequent plot device from action movies of yore, with politicians on both sides of the aisle becoming increasingly stuck in their positions as time wore on, their only hope a vine of compromise that lay just outside of their reach until after their heads were already submerged.

Of course, any such naming of complex events will involve radical simplification, but that’s why it’s so important to settle on a metaphor that’s fit for purpose. The fabled “credit crunch” that began to pass the lips of regular people back in 2007 sounded like a type of expensive yet sugary breakfast cereal, rather than the first rumbling indications that the entire edifice of the global finance was at risk of collapse.

Closer to home, the word “bailout” fails almost entirely in capturing the convoluted financial arrangements that have lead to Irish taxpayers paying for Irish banking debt under the guidance of the troika. “Bailout” sounds like an act of charity or kindness; the reality, unfortunately, doesn’t feel like it. Thus, our “bailout” sits at the intersection of metaphor and euphemism, failing as the former and succeeding all too well as the latter.

More recently, people tried to wrap their collective heads around something called the “God particle”, despite entire hadron colliders full of physicists strenuously imploring us not to be so facile when describing the Higgs boson. In that case, I strongly suspect that nobody knew what it meant anyway, but “God particle” at least sounded important enough to build a vast subterranean atom smasher to search for it.

And soon, we will be enjoying yet another Washington melodrama, the sequel to last year’s smash hit, the “debt ceiling crisis”. In some ways, this is even more misleading than the fiscal cliff – ceilings that are traditionally raised a few feet on an annual basis to accommodate more storage space and the like are a rare architectural feature indeed.

Understanding our world isn’t easy, but we make it unnecessarily more complicated by choosing and using poor metaphors to describe and explain it. It’s not a deliberate process, by and large, but it’s one we should pay attention to. Otherwise, if we’re not careful, we’ll find ourselves drowning in an ocean of misplaced metaphors.

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