SNL v. Fallon: Who Understands the Fiscal Cliff?

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The so-called “fiscal cliff” has finally reached the point where it has broken through into popular culture. But those of you who depend on late-night comedy for your policy analysis may be dismayed to learn that the quality of reporting on this vital issue is decidedly uneven. Here is Jimmy Fallon's explanation:

So, we have a bad joke concept combined with poor execution married to an absolutely abysmal grasp of the policy. According to Fallon, the fiscal cliff is something that “could cause a worldwide financial collapse like the one in 2008.” No! According to the Congressional Budget Office, if Congress does absolutely nothing at all for an entire year, it will cause a brief recession followed by a year-end rebound. Not a worldwide disaster, not even a national disaster. After viewing this segment, I can only conclude that Fallon’s prospects of winning a Nobel prize in economics are remote at best.

On the other hand, Saturday Night Live featured a commentary by Jay Pharoah as Barack Obama that was not only sort of funny but also utterly nailed the substance:

Everyone is talking about this fiscal cliff. But guess what — the Bush tax cuts are due to expire at the end of this year. Republicans thought they would be extended when Mitt Romney was president. Heh heh heh. Well, to quote Wesley Snipes, always bet on black. So, John Boehner, you claim you won’t agree to a tax rate increase of any kind? Fine! You want to be unreasonable, let’s be unreasonable. How about I start here: the military? Gone. If you want to go to war with Iran, you’re going to have to send in Ted Nugent.

Bingo! The fiscal cliff is not some incipient economic crisis. It is a combination of automatic policies that automatically impose policies — big tax hikes, military cuts — that Republicans fear far more than Democrats do. This is an impressive feat given that even leading members of budget commissions seem to misunderstand the issue.

So Saturday Night Live has taken the lead in the vital category of best explanation of federal budget policy on a late-night comedy show. But it’s still early!