WASHINGTON, DC – In early 2012, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke used the term “fiscal cliff” to grab the attention of lawmakers and the broader public. Bernanke’s point was that Americans should worry about the combination of federal tax increases and spending cuts that are currently scheduled to begin at the end of this year.
But there is not really any kind of “cliff” in the sense that if you stepped over the edge, you would fall fast, land on something hard, and not get up for a long time. In the modern US economy, the scheduled changes constitute more of a fiscal “slope” – meaning that the full effect of the tax increases would not be felt immediately (income withholding takes time to adjust), while the spending cuts would also be phased in (the government has some discretion regarding implementation). This slope offers President Barack Obama a real opportunity to restore the federal government’s revenue base to what it was in the mid-1990’s.
The choice of words to describe America’s fiscal situation matters, given the hysteria that has been whipped up in recent months, primarily by people who want to make big cuts in the country’s two main entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare. Their logic is that if we are about to rush off a cliff, we need to take extreme measures. And cutting pensions and health care for the elderly certainly qualifies as extreme – as well as completely inappropriate and unnecessary.
If, instead, the US faces a fiscal slope, then people who refuse to consider raising taxes – namely, Republicans in the US Congress’s House of Representatives – have a very weak hand indeed.