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.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.