Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Economy as a Journey, Not a River

The always insightful Paul Rosenberg has an excellent piece up on linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio's new book "Don't Buy It:  The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy."  According to Rosenberg, she discusses empirical evidence of how the political metaphor used for the economy affects what sorts of policies voters support.  To conservatives, the economy is water, a river, the tide or just plain Mother Nature herself (bolding added):
First, the metaphors they used reinforced their view of the economy as something natural, and hence best left alone. That described the "what" of the economy. In addition to personifying the economy (hence "ailing, growing, recovering, anemic, fragile" etc) this view was also reinforced by metaphors of water (as in "money flowing, a rising tide lifting all boats", etc) and weather ("economic storms, a cold business climate", etc). Such naturalistic metaphors might seem, well, natural, but the implication is obvious, she reminds us: "You know who regulates the ocean? The moon." The common conservative point of all these metaphors is that human interference is irrelevant and silly at best, and more likely downright harmful.
Liberals on the other hand have been far less consistent in the metaphors we use to describe the economy.  We more often fall prey to using right wing descriptions which makes the intellectual lift of persuading people to support our policies more difficult.  But one model he endorses is a car, which encapsulates the economy as something created artificially by humans, and something that is fundamentally a tool to be used in service of other goals, rather than a goal in itself:
Although they lack discipline, progressives do have an appropriate metaphor: the economy as a human-made object in motion - ideally, a vehicle - which sends the factually accurate message that the economy would not even exist without human involvement, and needs conscious controlling in order to avoid disastrous results.
Although I've never given enough thought to the meta topic of metaphor selection, I have previously used the car metaphor in discussing the economy, for example, in explaining why I thought that the nature of the economic system was not actually the defining issue for liberalism as an ideology, I once wrote:
In my own mental model of society, economics is the engine of the car.  Engines are obviously very important to the overall functioning of the car.  However, they are not the purpose of the car.  They are also able to vary significantly in theory.  So long as it can provide power to turn an axle, who cares how the engine does it?  In practice, car engines almost all work on the same principles, and the laws of physics limit the practicality of many alternative models.  So it seems with economics.  Capitalism may be the greatest economic system possible, or it may be the best we have tried so far, and others still untried will prove much better.  Liberalism can be agnostic on this topic.  If it employs capitalism, it will delve into the best way to tune and tweak that engine for maximum output, but it will remember that the engine is not the car, and what is good for the engine is not necessarily best for the car. 
I bolded the last part to highlight how the car metaphor lends itself to progressive economic policies.  Too often economic policy abstracts "the economy" to the point of practically anthropomorphizing it, so that public policy aims should serve the economy rather than the economy serving public policy aims.  If we talk about an engine, we may want to invest in new sparkplugs or higher quality fuel or whatever, but if the seatbelts are broken that's easily a higher priority and only when we understand what new sparkplugs or premium gasoline will do to benefit us, the passengers in our journey.

It's a great piece and it sounds like an important book.  Rosenberg's last couple paragraphs on how the journey metaphor lends itself to better ways of discussing inequality as a problem are not to be missed.  Naturally Martin Luther King Jr. got there first on instinct and intuition alone, but it's a great insight into why his rhetoric was so effective and how we mere mortals might recreate some of his magic going forward.

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