In the summer of 1989, the Illinois legislature approved a 20 percent hike on the state income tax for the sole purpose of generating an additional $251 million for public colleges and universities. The move, which guaranteed a tuition freeze and increased teaching salaries, was widely popular with the public. But education officials were unhappy—or worried, at least—because the tax increase had an expiration date of two years.
Safir Ahmed, then a 34-year-old reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote a 900-word story on educators’ anxiety about what would happen if, in two years, the legislature failed to extend the increase. With most of the money covering routine costs rather than one-time expenses, the schools would have to revert to their pre-hike budget—surely forcing painful cuts. As Ahmed reported (emphasis mine):
Earl Lazerson, president of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, hailed the Legislature’s actions but also warned of the danger of falling off a fiscal cliff in two years if the tax increase is discontinued. “On balance, this is a very important step on the part of the General Assembly and the governor in helping education,” Lazerson said. “The thing we need to be concerned about is the temporary nature of the increase. That needs to be rectified.”
According to a Nexis search, variations of “fiscal cliff-hanger” have been in use since at least the 1960s, but this is the first instance of “fiscal cliff” in print. Reached for comment, Lazerson told me he didn’t recall using that exact phrase in the interview—but that he considered the metaphor accurate. Ahmed, meanwhile, was surprised to hear that his decades-old article might be the earliest journalistic use of a phrase that, these days, has become unavoidable. He said he didn’t remember if he had heard it elsewhere, but that it came naturally to his mind when he was writing.
“I wanted to explain in a way that people would get. Falling off a cliff is a great phrase in general. It’s such a commonly understood phrase,” said Ahmed, now 57 and the editorial director for CREDO, a phone service provider with a charitable bent. “Fiscal cliffs convey this sense of danger. That’s what I wanted to say.”
He also vividly recalled his conversation with Lazerson, saying, “He was the one most concerned about the fact that this was a temporary thing. I was really trying to articulate that and to convey that,” Ahmed said. “He inspired that phrase.”
Illinois’ public colleges and universities never fell off that metaphorical cliff, as the legislature later passed bills to maintain funding levels. But over the years, the phrase has continued to appear in American papers—independently, I would suspect, of Ahmed’s article, given the Post-Dispatch’s limited reach in the pre-digital era. In 1990, the phrase was first used in reference to the national budget, with the Pittsburgh Press calling the impending crisis both a “fiscal cliff” and “a series of ‘rolling cliffs’ that threaten to leave the federal government without the authority to spend money.”
The phrase spread during the Clinton era, when it was often used to address the mounting anxiety over social security and healthcare: “Social Security is heading over the fiscal cliff, and even the president has noticed. Unfortunately, Medicare is in similar straits. In less than a decade the program will run out of money: The annual deficit will eventually hit a trillion dollars as the huge Baby Boom generation retires,” noted the Washington Times on March 22, 1999. And the phrase continued into the Bush administration, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted before the 2004 election, “The country is headed for a fiscal cliff, and the elephants and the donkeys are racing to see who can plunge over it first.”
And yet, Ben Bernanke has claimed it as his own, testifying before the House Financial Services Committee in March that “if no further action is taken, there’ll be what I’ve termed a ‘fiscal cliff’ on Jan. 1 of 2013 as a number of tax and other provisions expire, including the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax, U.I. benefits and at the same time on the spending side if sequestration arising from the failure of the supercommittee to agree kicks in.” (It is true, as the American Prospect’s Paul Waldman notes, that this is the first instance of “fiscal cliff” referring to what will happen on Jan. 1.)
Ahmed, a self-described progressive, said that he “never thought this would be used and become this popular 20 years later.” But calls the phrase “very appropriate” in describing the looming cuts and sequestration. Others beg to differ. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls the phrase “imperfect,” adding, “It’s really more a long, rolling hill. A fiscal slope.” Slate’s Matthew Yglesias agrees that it’s not a cliff: A salient fact about non-metaphorical cliffs is that falling over them is generally irreversible. If the cliff is high enough that falling off of it would kill you, then if you fall off you’re going to die and that’s the end of it. The “fiscal cliff” by contrast isn’t like that at all.” And Jonathan Chait worries that the metaphor is damaging the national conversation: “But here is a case where a bad metaphor has caused everybody to think about the matter in exactly the wrong way. When you walk off a cliff, the first step is your last. There is no such thing as falling halfway down a cliff. But the ‘fiscal cliff’ is not a cliff at all. The economic damage is cumulative.”
Ahmed agreed that the image of the country falling off a cliff was rather dramatic—and that’s precisely why he is a fan of it. “Yes, it’s an alarmist phrase, but it’s exactly why phrases like these are needed. This is a real problem, this is a real situation,” he said. “I’m glad to see there’s this focus on it, and this term being used. That’s the power of a good phrase. I’m frankly glad to see it happening.”