The “fiscal cliff” is one of my least favorite metaphors for an actual policy-making disaster. As the precipice nears, state governments are, naturally, starting to panic (California has its very own fiscal cliff also coming in January 2013, if a key ballot measure fails). has a story on this panic: “States are closely linked to what the federal government does. There’s a severe correlation between the two that gets left unnoticed.” And cities of course, are closely linked to both state and federal policies, both because laid-off state employees live in cities, and because when states panic (as California is doing now), they often try to trim budgets in anticipation, and at this point that trimming often cuts into programs that cities need.

Races for state political office often hinge on candidates’ plans for dealing with a fall off the fiscal cliff, so that austerity policies became topics for debate, and “sensible” state policy, even before the crisis becomes anything more than a high-stakes game of chicken.

The fiscal cliff is not the inevitable outcome of a very real recession; it is a policy moment created by a set of political choices, and will be remedied by a political compromise. Everyone knows that. Obviously, the question of how the federal budget gets balanced is an important question, and not easy to predict. But the metaphor of the cliff gives a whiff of natural disaster, of an inevitable slide toward fiscal crisis rather than a politics of slowly strangling government at all levels.

Read NBCNews: State budgets in jeopardy as nation nears fiscal cliff – Bottom Line.