The Nonsensical Beauty of the Fiscal Cliff

Republicans have finally found one thing to like about Ben Bernanke: The term fiscal cliff. It’s one of our era’s great pieces of obfuscating cant, because it describes automatic austerity actions that would lower the deficit but sounds like something that would blow up our finances.

A quick recap. The fiscal cliff describes the scheduled return of all pre-Bush tax rates and the enactment of the sequester that cuts $700 billion from defense budgets and $700 billion from discretionary spending. This would put a huge dent in the deficit. It would also put a soggy blanket on economic growth, because—as Republicans now happily point out—when government spends less on building things, people get fired. So you see TV ads like this one, in which we’re told that “Democrats say they are prepared to go over the so-called fiscal cliff at the end of the year.”

The charge is mostly true. It’s just that cutting the quote off there leaves out the fact that Democrats are negotiating.

Democrats say they are prepared to go over the so-called fiscal cliff at the end of the year if Republicans continue their opposition to more revenue from top earners, allowing the George W. Bush-era tax cuts to temporarily expire for everyone on Dec. 31 and accepting scheduled spending reductions, including for Pentagon programs favored by Republicans.

See what I mean? Writing that “Democrats are ready to let all tax rates rise again, which would have the greatest impact on top earners,” is only a little scary. “Democrats say they are prepared to go over the fiscal cliff” is scary. And it leaves out the fact that the current Republican position is to blow a bigger hole in the deficit to save the tax cuts.