Although everyone’s focused on the election now, by the end of next week America will plunge into yet another harrowing contest over the future of our nation. Already some are frantically working behind the scenes to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” (1) Economic metaphors will again be a very big part of the action. Given the way our brains work, we humans are forced to use metaphor when it comes to describing big ideas and systems.
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 too.
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 reframing efforts.
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, 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.
2) For a lot more in this excellent vein, I suggest that you run right out and get a copy of Shenker-Osorio’s book yourselves (Public Affairs, New York, 2012, 222 pp
3) Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2011, 173 pp.