the Economy! Three Ways to Avoid Their Words
By Susan C. Strong, Founder and Executive
Director, The Metaphor Project, www.metaphorproject.org
Although everyone's focused on the election now,
by the end of next week
Of course, first up in the parade of economic
metaphors will be the misleading "household budget" metaphor used by the G.O.P.
to describe the federal budget. Advocates
of "government stimulus" will resort to the traditional "priming the pump"
metaphor. But there are big metaphorical glitches embedded in this predictable
exchange: If the "household budget"
metaphor is applied only to the government's budget, where is the rest of the
"nation-family's household budget?" Not mentioned. One way to counter it is to
say that, in fact, the government is your better-off Uncle Sam, who will loan
you the money for college, if your parents don't have it. He knows it will help
the "whole nation-family" if you get a good education. As for the "priming the pump" metaphor, it
describes a single action on the part of government with a fuzzy "water"
metaphor, about which I will say more later.
But the "pump priming" metaphor also leaves out any description of the
whole national economy and how it all works.
However, the G.O.P. does have a complete
vocabulary of metaphors for the whole economy and how it acts. Unfortunately,
most Democrats and even liberal economists also use that same tainted language,
without thinking for a minute about how inaccurate and damaging their verbal
behavior is. According to Anat Shenker-Osorio, author of Don't Buy It: the Trouble with
Talking Nonsense about the Economy and a cognitive scientist who has
done extensive field research on the subject; the G.O.P. describes the economy
in one of several ways. (2) They suggest that the economy is a natural force or
a body we cannot and should not "hurt" or try to control. They also liken it to the weather, or to
water flowing all by itself. Moreover, in their lexicon, the market is like
your strict father or even God, rewarding and punishing behavior. But with everyone
talking this way about the economy, it's no wonder we're in a mess
today, because the economy is actually very much a human creation, with rules
we make (or rig). Metaphor matters, friends, and the wrong metaphors can harm
and even kill.
So what should we be saying instead? Here's a
second option. Through her research, Shenker-Osorio has noticed one very
different progressive metaphor for talking about the economy. It's one that
does evoke the idea of something we create and control by "rules" we have set
up ourselves: the economy as a vehicle or machine we build, drive, fix, tinker
with, and so on. I like Anat's suggestion about the "vehicle" metaphor. It's
vastly better than using the G.O.P.'s economic metaphors. But there is one
thing about the vehicle metaphor that worries me: it's a machine metaphor, and
machines do not "grow."
Yes, I know all about the problem of so-called
"economic growth" (see my byline please!).
As currently measured, so-called "economic growth" is a doomsday machine
bearing down on our planet's ecosphere and us as a species. It treats as a plus
the ever- increasing "growth" in money value that ends up destroying life. But
in order to counter that dire future, we need "growth" in alternative energy
use, sustainable farming practices, and many other areas of our economy.
Moreover, despite modern ignorance of our economy's roots in nature, there's
still a visceral sense that if plants and animals grow, we will thrive
So what economic metaphor system could evoke a
healthy, life-fostering, in-balance growth we create and control by our own
actions? If you're guessing that option #3 is a garden metaphor, you would be
right. Only this time we need to picture the national economy as a community
garden, and the government as the community gardener we hire to coordinate our
efforts. That job includes alerting us when some parts of the garden are
getting too many weeds--unfruitful and unfair subsidies sopping up resources of
sun, water, soil and fertilizer other plants need-- or when other "plants" are
getting too much or not enough sun or water. Making sure the weeding and other
gardening work gets done if we are too busy ourselves is also part of the job
description. (A much more extensive
exploration of the community garden metaphor for our economy, and even for our
democracy itself can be found in the most recent book by Eric Liu and Nick
Hanauer, The Gardens of Democracy.)(3) But to find a very current gardening
metaphor, we need look no further than a recent New York Times article.
In "Seeds That Federal Money Can Plant," author Steve Lohr likens federal
investments in basic scientific research to "seed corn" (October 7, 2012,
Business Section, p.3). Those, he says, are seeds we must save and not eat now
(as in "cut"), because private companies need that kind of basic public
research to grow their own proprietary variations later on.
The backyard, community, or school garden, even
the pot of herbs growing on an apartment window sill, is just as familiar an
experience as a household budget. So "the garden" is a good place to start
countering the G.O.P.'s disempowering economic metaphors. Moreover, because the "growth" metaphor has long
governed human thinking about survival, we must use it to talk about the
economy in an accurate way. Otherwise, I fear we will fail to get far in our
Above all, and whatever metaphor system you
decide to use right now--whole national family, a vehicle or a garden--remember:
avoid at all costs the Right's "economic" metaphors of body, weather, natural
force, father or God. Those words evoke a whole system of ideas about how the
economy and the market work, a way that is absolutely wrong for the American
future we progressives want.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of The Metaphor Project, www.metaphorproject.org , and author of Move Our Message: How to Get America's Ear. Before starting The Metaphor Project, she was a co-founder of The "Who's Counting?" Project , an online vehicle for publicizing the film, Who's Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies, and Global Economics. In the 1990's she served as Senior Research Associate for six years at The Center for Economic Conversion, (Mountain View, CA), publishing "The GDP Myth: How It Harms Our Quality of Life and What Communities Can Do About It," (The Center for Economic Conversion, Mountain View, 1995, 38 pp .). She also served as a co-founder of Peace Action's original Peace Economy Campaign .
1) This scary metaphor refers, of course, to the crisis brought on by the 2011 Budget Agreement, which mandates automatic, draconian cuts to the federal budget, unless Congress and the President can agree to another plan to reduce the federal deficit over a reasonable period of time.