The cinematic “fiscal cliff” entered the political conversation in February when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Congress about the austerity measures set to kick in at year’s end.
“Under current law, on January 1, 2013, there's going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases,” Bernanke said. “I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it all happen at one date."
As pundits and politicians have pointed out, the term "fiscal cliff" may be too alarmist to describe a series of cuts and tax increases that are set to be phased in gradually and could be relaxed if lawmakers work out a deal early next year, after their Dec. 31 deadline.
With that deadline approaching, all sorts of geographical metaphors have cropped up to explain the fiscal landscape. Here are nine, which mostly seem best for describing a hike from hell.
1. "Fiscal slope"
Democrats in Congress have used less scary precipices — fiscal slopes, hills and curves — to more accurately describe the situation as they see it.
“Everybody’s told me I should not be using [fiscal cliff],” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) told Politico. “It’s been people on my staff and others who just feel like it’s confusing. It’s not an ideological thing. It’s more how can we help people understand the challenge we’re facing.”
2. "Cliff diving"
This term has emerged to describe people who believe that jumping off the fiscal cliff would not be suicide, and that it may be easier to negotiate a budget deal on the other side. The White House is not into this strategy.
“I don’t know what ‘fiscal cliff diving’ specifically means,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters this week. “Our interest is in achieving a deal that maximizes benefits for the middle class [and] maximizes benefits for the economy. And that is best achieved, I think, before the end of the year.”
3. "Minor step off a curb"
“If you don’t do anything, it becomes a very, very large adjustment in both tax revenue and spending over a long period of time,” said MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell earlier this month. “But over the course of the few weeks that we will have done this before Congress fixes it, it will be a minor step off a curb. And it’s all fixable retroactively.”
4. "Bad overhang"
This is the view from Canada as seen in this headline from the Globe and Mail: "Fiscal cliff? More like a bad overhang." The author, Mike Moffatt, goes on to list other ways to describe the downhill climb:
Alternative metaphors, such as walking with a backpack full of weights or going down a water slide have been proposed to better describe slow deterioration of economic conditions as consumers and businesses spend less.
CNBC analyst John Carney floated the idea of a trampoline waiting at the bottom of the cliff that allows a rebound if Congress passes retroactive measures in the new year. Carney made his remarks on the radio program "Marketplace."
6. "Mountain of debt"
President Obama has been talking about getting rid of our mountain of debt for years. The mountain's most dramatic view can be seen from its fiscal cliff.
7. "Fiscal waterfall"
"If you combine the fiscal cliff with global warming, you get the global fiscal waterfall," Tim Fernholz wrote in Quartz. Fernholz considers whether America could start to fix the two problems with a carbon tax, and concludes that the issue is not popular enough in Congress to build consensus around it.
8. "A very tall mountain to climb"
When CBS News chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer was asked earlier this month whether he thought Democrats and Republicans could come to a deal before the deadline, he said the two sides were still very far apart. "This is going to be a very tall mountain to climb," he said.
9. "Political roller coaster"
The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus takes us to an amusement park where no one is having any fun:
Before the “fiscal cliff” comes the political roller coaster. Agreement will seem unattainable until, suddenly, it isn’t. The sickening plunge will feel endless until the car starts to climb again. But at the moment, things are not looking good.