This is the season of the cliff, the fiscal cliff that is. It is the phrase on every pundit's lips, the subject of endless commentary and debate. This branding of the combination of higher tax rates and mandatory spending cuts scheduled to take effect on January 1 was a marketing stroke of genius. It is an image we all get: ignore it and we will plunge into the abyss.
Yet the very success of the brand renders it inaccurate. Cliffs are dangerous only if you don't see them coming. 9/11 was a cliff, the Lehman bankruptcy another. A day comes along, and from then on nothing is quite the same. But this well advertised set of changes in the federal budget lacks that element of surprise and shock. It is more like a stiff headwind or steep uphill climb that is already dragging down the speed of our economic recovery.
Remember, words cut both ways. We not only use them to express our emotions and opinions, but they shape those reactions as well. In a famous example, re-labeling the "estate tax" as a "death tax" helped mobilize opposition to it. And in the same vein, the impending cliff was like writing the word "urgent" in big, bold letters. It got our attention.
In a world awash in content and mobile devices, our fickle and short-lived attention is the most sought after target. To listen to us we would appear to have lost the ability to distinguish between a condition, a problem and a real threat. Our reflex is to label everything as a crisis and hope somebody is listening. And once we've used the c-word we are reluctant to drop it. Consider for example the term "euro-crisis," which at several years running would seem to have outlived its shelf life.
Which is not to say that we haven't found a new way to describe a crisis emeritus. We have a term for a problem that has begun to resolve itself, but still lingers. It expresses both a sense of having moved on and disquiet at finding things not quite the same. No doubt you've heard it.
Welcome to the New Normal.
With a Perspective, this is Paul Staley.
Paul Staley works for a housing non-profit. He lives in San Francisco.