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'Fiscal Cliff' a New Application of an Old Term

The term "fiscal cliff" goes back at least as far as 1957. In the New York Times Property section in that year, an article written by Walter Stern included the phrase in reference to people borrowing too much money in order to buy their first house:

"To the prospective home owner wondering whether the purchase of a given house will push him over the fiscal cliff, probably the most difficult item to estimate is his future property tax."

Lawmakers and media members brought the phrase out again in the 1970s and the 1980s to describe the struggles of many cities and states to avoid going into bankruptcy. (One well-publicized example of this was New York City in 1975. President Gerald Ford refused to commit the Federal Government to a bailout of New York, prompting the New York Daily News to run its famous headline Ford to City: Drop Dead.)

The 2012 version comes from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who described "a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases" looming on the horizon if Congress doesn't act by the end of the year.

The comparison of future revenues and future expenses is a budgetary concern for individuals, businesses, and governments. The idea is a timeless one, even if the current phrasing is only a few decades old.

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