Thursday, December 6, 2012

Talking "Fiscal Cliff"

I completely endorse Kevin Drum's smart post today about liberal complaints about the name "fiscal cliff" for the convergence of a spending sequester, expiring tax rates, and other things. Drum says, correctly, that it's the name we're stuck with regardless of what anyone wants at this point, and also that it's not really all that easy to manufacture this stuff and have it stick.

Beyond that, the really important point is that in almost every case, what we call this stuff matters a whole lot less than people think, and probably not at all.

Remember, there's a real bias here: most of the people who talk about and argue about what things are called have a major personal interest in...word choice. Actually, in both senses of interest; a lot of people in the argument have a self-interest in people caring about word choice, but they also simply find word choice interesting.

At any rate, my view is that there's basically no evidence that it would make any difference at all that whether we call all of this the "fiscal cliff" or something more accurate. Similarly, pick an issue: it almost certainly didn't matter that people came to call the recent health care reforms "Obamacare," or that people called certain taxes a "death tax." If you can produce evidence, fine, but I'll warn you right now: showing that policies poll differently when you call them different things is not evidence that those different names have any effects on which policies are adopted. You need more than that, and I don't think you're going to find it.

As for the present case: it's of course all kinds of true that "fiscal cliff" is a terrible name for it. But I'm just baffled at the idea that anything would be different if it was called something else. I mean, it's not even a question here, as it is with the estate/death tax, of what one thinks of the policy; it's a question of what to call the process, and renaming it doesn't seem to me to favor either party or any interest.

I suppose it may be the case that some reporters, and beyond them the wider public, might understand what will happen in January without a deal better if the process had a better name. But I don't think that's affecting anything. The policy arguments here are pretty important, but what to call it just doesn't matter much.

28 comments:

  1. Yes, yes, but it's more fun to argue about which metaphor is best.

    I propose, "fiscal drought." There's growth already happening, and it's going to slow down if we don't do some irrigation.

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  2. One could argue that conservatives - not liberals - have more to complain about regarding the term "fiscal cliff".

    After all, the word "cliff" has terrible connotations - if you go over it, you're dead. But what exactly are we talking about when we say "fiscal cliff"? Government austerity. Sudden, extreme austerity. In other words, exactly the sort of thing that conservatives have been calling for since Obama took office.

    So perhaps it should irk them a little bit that their preferred policy is being likened to a method of death.

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    1. The term certainly is prejudicial against actually reducing the deficit, but I'm not sure the Republican leadership is any more interested in that than the Democrats.

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  3. ". . .a lot of people in the argument have a self-interest in people caring about word choice . . ."

    Just who do you have in mind here, dictionary publishers?

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    1. Oh, sorry, I wrote too short there...any professional writers/talkers, but especially communications types. I mean, Frank Luntz has a lot riding on people believing that is magic words matter; there's really no one who has a self-interest in arguing the other side.

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  4. I don't know about word choice, but I'm in the camp of those who think that it matters whether constituents understand issues in detail rather than just leaving it up to party leaders. People (even liberal Democrats!) appear to favor deficit cutting over anything explicitly Keynsian. At least, they often give answers to pollsters such that politicians perceive this to be true. Is this because they're being fed junk? Yes, but often the junk is an appeal to popular pressure. So people using "deficits" as shorthand for "bad economic stuff", whatever their reasons for doing so, increases the pressure for junk policies like what we got around the time of the debt ceiling crisis.

    I was optimistic that the narrative had shifted against austerity, but it's a bit disappointing that people don't actually understand that the fiscal cliff means cutting and taxing too much, too fast. On the other hand, if people start complaining about "austerity" like they do about "deficits" despite understanding neither, that's progress of sorts. You could say that public ignorance gives party leaders freedom to ignore the polls and just focus on results, but in practice politicians do tend to kowtow to public ignorance at least to some extent.

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    1. Bush and Greenspan tried that and all it bought us was a housing bubble. Paul Krugman wrote an article about the problem back in 2005 -- his conclusion being that the Fed would have to find something to “replace” the housing bubble once it had run its course. That’s essentially what our policy has been, using fiscal and monetary stimulus in a vain attempt to bring us back to the magical bubble economy of the late 90’s and earl 2000’s.

      It’s time to stop kidding ourselves. It’s time to rip off the band-aid and expose this festering economy to the sunlight of real market prices.

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    2. Couves:
      I agree (from the left), but think that we can't rip off the band-aid. We have to transition slowly, unfortunately. Problems built up over a decade(ish? plus?) can't be undone in a week.

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    3. Matt: On the one hand, you generally want to give people time to plan for and adapt to change. On the other hand, even modest measures are likely to send us back into recession, so there’s really no point in holding back. You’d want to phase-in certain things, like entitlement reform, over a long period of time -- while other cuts and tax increases could be immediate.

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  5. "Fiscal Reset." Been pushing it for months with no success.

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    1. Ooh! A subthread with our favorite names!

      I like "fiscal reset," but it's too factual and boring.

      I think Stewart has really nailed it, though:

      "Cliffpocalypsemageddonacaust - Totally Solvable Budget Problem"

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    2. Oooh!

      British television personality tried to do this with the lame term "Credit Crunch" and come up with "Moneygeddon", so I'm going to go with "taxspendingeddon" or how about "what will happen us we change existing US law"

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    3. That is British television personality Charlie Brooker...

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  6. @Will
    You are totally right about people not using the word "deficit" correctly and its true that politicains can lead the way in this, but that's not the point. People will have disagreements over policy regardless what what technical terms we use. Whether we talk about "austerity" or "deficits" or "economic dolledrums" people-and parties-will always orient themselves around certain policy preferences like cutting government spending or cutting taxes, that's just the nature of democracy. Coming up with new language isn't going to really change anyone's mind. Does anyone think that if the term "death tax" had never been invented the GOP wouldn't have tried to repeal the estate tax? Or that the votes in Congress would be different? There's a tendency for partisans or people committed to an ideology to explain why people don't agree with them about politics in terms that suggest this disagreement is somehow artificial, liberals like to say conservatives aren't educated or worldly enough. Conservatives like to claim they are more mature or that they are the ones who truly "understand" the Constitution (as opposed to Ruth Bader Ginsberg) but this is just human nature. We want an external factor (that also makes us feel better about ourselves) to explain why people disagree with us, because it's frustrating to have people disagree with you in politics, they keep you from doing what you want. The argument that if we had better buzz words or labels to express our view more people would agree with us about taxes on taxes or spending is just a fancier version of this.

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  7. I'm not sold that the term "fiscal cliff" is value neutral - words have power (thinking follows language), and it wouldn't surprise if 'fiscal cliff' was purposefully introduced by conservative sympathizers to cover off against them otherwise not having any ammo in this fight.

    Neal Conan made a similar point interviewing Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) the other day. Except for raising taxes on the middle class, which everyone will blame on Republicans anyway, what will Obama have to lose in doing nothing before Jan 1? Chaffetz equivocated the way congresspeople do, but the answer was pretty clear: Obama holds virtually all the cards here.

    Except for the "fiscal cliff". If you watch the (anti-Obama) CNBC with any regularity, you know that every time Maria Bartiromo or Becky Quick or any of the rest say the words "Fiscal Cliff", the station immediately cuts to this really ominous graphic of all those programs breaking over a cliff, accompanied by death music and other scary stuff.

    So why "fiscal cliff"? Because the term makes it seem like doing nothing is the worst thing that could happen! And doing nothing is Obama's huge ace in the hole here. As a general rule, it strikes me that people are too blase about language; its way more powerful than people realize, and its surely responsible for half the madness on Fox News. "Fiscal cliff" is not an accident; its a tactic from the Right, who otherwise pretty much have no quivers in their bow.

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    1. CSH - Agree with your assessment about the power of language. Words chosen frame the tenor/context of the discussion. Going off the cliff is pretty much universally recognized as a bad thing, regardless of the (unknown) true consequences. And I really do think that terms like "death panels" and "death taxes" have made a difference, perhaps not in the votes by legislators, but almost certainly in public perception of the issues, and different public perceptions just might have resulted in different voting patterns.

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    2. "Going off the cliff is pretty much universally recognized as a bad thing, regardless of the (unknown) true consequences."

      The CBO thinks the fiscal cliff would be good for long term economic recovery:

      "CBO projects that the significant tax increases and spending cuts that are due to occur in January will probably cause the economy to fall back into a recession next year, but they will make the economy stronger later in the decade and beyond. In contrast, continuing current policies would lead to faster economic growth in the near term but a weaker economy in later years."

      http://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43692-DeficitReduction_print.pdf

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    3. But none of the key players in either party are saying that. Whatever their bargaining strategies, "failure" isn't on the table in the way it was during the debt ceiling crisis. (Unless of course Boehner really wants another debt ceiling fight) I do think letting all the cuts and taxes go into effect here isn't *quite* as crazy as letting the government hit the debt ceiling. But "go over the fiscal cliff" doesn't have nearly the immediate attractiveness to the average low-information voter as "don't raise the debt ceiling", and I think that does affect the pressure politicians feel on these respective issues. Is this dynamic caused purely by word choices? No, I don't think so, rather it is a sign of other underlying forces, but it's hard to say that language (not to mention ill-informed poll responses) is totally irrelevant.

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    4. Will, you're right that the parties (and, I would add, the media) have agreed that the "fiscal cliff" is an almost unthinkable act of economic suicide. But conventional wisdom doesn't always reflect economic reality.

      The fiscal cliff was originally intended to be a sort of political punishment to encourage both sides to reach a deal. Since both sides perceive that they have something significant to lose by it, the first thing they agreed on was to catastrophize the whole thing as some sort of economic end times. The reality is that the fiscal cliff accomplishes (if somewhat ham-handedly) what they're supposedly trying to do in negotiations, reduce the deficit.

      The CBO is clear that, as an economic policy, the fiscal cliff is in the long term best interest of our country. However, the failure to reach political consensus that such an event would represent, would itself be economically destabilizing (not to mention, it would most likely result in simply reversing the effects of the fiscal cliff).

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    5. The idea that "words have power" is very much an ipse dixit. It's actually very hard to establish that if you just label something differently everything changes. And there's a ton of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning in these cases. Someone comes up with a clever name and assumes that causes the policy victory.

      Just because Frank Luntz and George Lakoff make money (in different ways) off the theory doesn't mean it really is true. And in general, people should spend a lot more time worrying about correct policy and a lot less time worrying about coming up with pithy expressions-- in the end getting the policy right is far more important.

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    6. Dilan (and anyone else) - if you're interested, look into the research of Derek Besner, a cognitive psychologist who several years ago published several papers showing that, in fact, cognition is driven by language, rather than the other way around. If you look into Besner's (underappreciated) research, you will discover that 'language guiding thoughts' is not, as you suggest, an assertion without proof but rather a scientific fact.

      It is unfortunate for Besner personally, and all of us collectively, that his research is not more widely appreciated. It is easy for any of us to say "words don't matter", since, after all, when we look in the mirror we see an enlightened individual who would never be influenced by rhetoric.

      Unfortunately, the facts don't support our own generous self-assessment in this regard. (It often works out that way, it seems).

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  8. I have no idea how anybody could quantify the influence of word choice, and I admit my prejudice as a writer. But "death panels" and "death tax," even the battle between "pro-life" and "pro-choice" over the single issue of abortion, all seem to me to be examples of the importance of word choices, and in some cases, how issues can be won by characterizing them in a certain way with words.

    I've long believed that the wishy-washy vocabulary of "global warming" (with the comforting associations of warm) and even "the greenhouse effect" (greenhouses are good, aren't they?) took the urgency out of the problem. It hasn't gotten better. "Climate change" is neutral (don't we like change?) and the professional planning vocabulary of adaptation and mitigation, which even I have trouble keeping straight, masks the real choices and issues involved in sorting causes and effects, and what will be necessary to address each. This by the way, I believe will be the focus of most political dialogue for the bulk of this century.

    On the other hand, the habit of inflating issues by choosing dramatic words, as in "fiscal cliff," can lose potency, as seems to be the case in this instance.

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  9. Wanted to add a slightly different take: think of Jan 1 in the context of the original rationale for the Bush tax cuts. Those cuts were justified on the erroneous belief that the surge in late Clinton revenues were sustainable, with the further justification that if such revenues were not sustainable, the cuts were nevertheless justified cause they would "starve the beast".

    What a stupid, stupid set of ideas. Looking back from the end of 2012, the Bush tax cuts were among the sorriest, most fantasy-driven pieces of legislation in our nation's history. Obviously, the correct thing to do is reverse that error. Correct, but as Krugman constantly reminds us, not without pain. Politically, then, who's gonna take that pain, as the Bush cuts are the marquee items expiring on Jan 1?

    As it sets up now, almost certainly the Republicans, as they have been negotiated into a box by Obama, whose position is "I support further irrational tax relief for 95% of the population (and 99% of my constituency), while Republicans hold it up for a sop to their rich friends". Whether Obama really believes this or understands that the Bush tax cuts were inherently a bad idea - across the board - doesn't matter; Obama's positioned to bring the country back to fiscal sanity and avoid any blame.

    Which is great for Obama, and bad for the Republicans. The best counterattack is to scream that letting Obama do what he wants (i.e. win) is the equivalent to driving a bus off a cliff. Thus the language. Someone above suggested a "fiscal reset". Perhaps both sides discuss it that way in private.

    But why would the Republicans make victory so easy for Obama? They're not that dumb, are they?



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    1. Obama’s increase in tax rates isn’t going to solve our fiscal problems, nor is it designed to. Rather, it’s a smart way for him to outmaneuver Republicans at their own game.

      So yea, they don't want to lose!

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    2. The 2001/2003 tax cuts were, indeed, ill-advised and based on the faulty logic adopted by Bush in the 2000 campaign: "the surplus is the government taking in too much money, so here's your money back."

      Of course, if a surplus means the government too much of your money, then a deficit means the government took too little of it.

      The ironic thing is, across-the-board tax cuts would be a reasonable proposal in the 2008-2012 era, especially if marginal rates were still at Clinton-era levels. You know, fiscal stimulus and all.

      So I think people may be underestimating the risks of going over the "cliff" at this point. A double-dip recession isn't good for anyone in office, even if most people would blame Republicans.

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  10. It's not just people in the wordsmithing professions who care deeply about names. There's an old saying in computer science:

    There are only two hard problems in Computer Science: naming things, cache coherency, and off-by-one errors.

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  11. You're being to blase. Words matter - read '1984' again if you don't believe it.

    To answer your question about "which policies are adopted", it's right there in your examples: "death panels" -- that policy was never enacted. Two quotes:
    - "While administration officials cited procedural reasons for changing the rule, it was clear that political concerns were also a factor."
    - "During debate on the legislation, Democrats dropped a somewhat similar proposal to encourage end-of-life planning after it touched off a political storm. Republicans said inaccurately that the House version of the bill allowed a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare."

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/05/health/policy/05health.html

    Now, if you're going to argue if Palin & co called it a more accurate term like "advance care planning" it STILL would have been removed (b/c words don't matter to you), I don't know how you're going to prove that. The fact is, they called it a "DEATH PANEL" which scared the beejesus out of old folks, and Dems said, "We don't need this" and out it went.

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  12. Here's my analysis of the most recent Quinnipiac poll and how it relates to the partisan gridlock in Congress. http://realpolitiknewswithviews.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/why-congress-gets-a-lump-of-coal-this-christmas/

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