Debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, and overused metaphors

Tease the day: Should we talk more about metaphorical ceilings than cliffs?

AP/Susan Walsh

I have an economist friend who, some weeks ago, scoffed at the notion of a fiscal cliff. If U.S. lawmakers can’t strike a deal before Jan. 1, and those fabled tax hikes and spending cuts do come into effect, my friend insisted it wouldn’t lead to immediate catastrophe. He was far from the only economist making the argument that the fiscal madness was more slope than cliff. Erica Alini, who wrote a thoughtful Maclean’s primer on the negotiations at hand, referred to the cadre of economists we’ll call the anti-alarmists. My economist friend passed along a Paul Krugman’s essay about the cliff in The New York Times where, among other things, Krugman suggested “nothing very bad will happen to the economy if agreement isn’t reached until a few weeks or even a few months into 2013. So there’s time to bargain.” That was way, way, way back in November, though, when there was room for nuance in this worrisome public debate. Now, the anti-alarmists are drowned out.

The Toronto Star warns that lawmakers will either cut a deal in the next few days or “watch the economy go off a “fiscal cliff.” The Globe and Mail writes that with U.S. officials all but resigned to miss the end-of-year deadline, it’ll be the new Congress that’s left to “pick up the pieces later in January.” Subtlety is overrated.

Of course, there’s another very scary thing you’ll read about at the bottom of the fiscal cliff reporting. It’s related to the other modern American economic tragedy: its occasional dalliance with a debt ceiling. When Krugman tempered the immediate impact of the cliff in that Times essay, he was contrasting it against the very real threat of breaching the debt ceiling: “[The fiscal cliff] is not like the debt-ceiling confrontation, where terrible things might well have happened right away if the deadline had been missed,” he wrote.

So maybe it’s time to flip those news stories around. Hitting a ceiling is less sexy than plunging over a cliff, but maybe we should drop the metaphors for the next few days. They’re a distraction.

What’s above the fold this morning?

The Globe and Mail leads with massive snowfall across eastern Canada—and, well, waning confidence that American lawmakers will come to a deal on the so-called “fiscal cliff” before New Year’s Day. The National Post fronts Christie Blatchford’s column that eviscerates Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence’s 17-day-old hunger strike. The Toronto Star goes above the fold with Mayor Rob Ford’s innocence in a $6-million libel suit. The Ottawa Citizen leads with the Department of National Defence’s continued study of an unmanned aerial vehicle—or “drone”—program. iPolitics fronts Ford’s victory in court. leads with retailers failing to follow the rules when it comes to in-store customer surveillance. National Newswatch showcases a National Post story about political leaders’ propensity for suspending legislatures when it’s convenient.

Stories that will be (mostly) missed

1. 2017 celebration. As Canada begins to prepare for its 150th birthday in 2017, Aboriginal groups hope the country also reflects on its steps backward since 1867. 2. Accused Nazi. The federal government stripped 88-year-old Helmut Oberlander, an accused Nazi, of his Canadian citizenship for alleged complicity in war crimes during World War Two.
3. Canadian terrorists? Two Tamil-Canadians who were deported recently after the Supreme Court threw out their case are on trial in New York for allegedly aiding terrorists in Sri Lanka. 4. Prisoner transfer. A Canadian citizen imprisoned in Ethiopia on terrorism charges may be sent to Canada after six years, but negotiations remain ongoing.

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