The economy is a ‘machine’, not a ‘body’

The unseen power of metaphors in guiding how we think could be key to escaping from a prolonged economic crisis.

Tea Party
Viewing the economy as a living body implies that it is self-regulating, and thus should be left alone [GALLO/GETTY]

The sustained financial crisis that the US government now finds itself in was entirely avoidable, according to a paper by Berkeley economist Brad DeLong last year, “Battered but Not and Beaten”. The situation in late 2008 was dire, he explained but, he was convinced, “we were going to get out of this with only minor damage to the economy, for we did have (a) the technocratic knowledge, (b) the policy tools, and (c) the political will to escape from the trap”.

In my super-short summary, he was wrong about (c). And whomever you blame for it, one thing should be clear: a multitude of cognitive confusions contributed to this failure, leading people again and again to turn away from the tough choices, to become distracted, misdirected or preoccupied with other matters. A few of the more major examples were:

(1) Reversing causality. The best-known causal fallacy – out of more than a dozen – is the “post hoc” or “rooster” fallacy, believing that just because one thing precedes another, it must be the cause. A lesser-known fallacy actually reverses cause-and-effect – it’s known as “wrong direction”. And this is what’s happened with the widespread assumption that the federal deficit is responsible for our prolonged recession. In fact, the recession both reduces tax revenues, due to all the people out of work, and increases government spending on food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc. In both these ways, recessions cause larger deficits – and big recessions cause much larger deficits, like the one the US is running today.

(2) Dysfunctional responses to cognitive dissonance. Wikipedia explains cognitive dissonance thus:

“Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.”

The latter sorts of responses are dysfunctional. Such thinking ran rampant among free market economists, who simply could not deal with the fact that their beloved free market had gone so badly awry. In fact, this was empirically demonstrated in a paper in the Real-World Economics Review, Issue #54, “Cognitive dissonance, the Global Financial Crisis and the discipline of economics”, by Adam Kessler. Free-market economists insisted on shifting blame to government actions, even in the case of the Community Reinvestment Act, which could easily be shown to have had little involvement. (See my discussion here.)

Yet the Obama Administration and its supporters also suffer from this. They are in denial about the impossibility of getting a consensus on effective policy with Republicans. No matter how many times Republicans responded to gestures of compromise by moving to even more extreme positions, Obama continued compromising, rewarding and furthering their intransigence, and he was widely supported by Democratic politicians and voters for doing so. He was no more willing to change his political strategy than conservatives were to change their economics.

(3) Comparing the federal budget to the budget of families during the recession. This was a favourite analogy of conservatives arguing against Obama’s stimulus – until Obama ultimately joined them in using it. (Another futile attempt to get them to compromise?) As we’ll see below, there’s a good reason why this is appealing, but it’s utterly wrong-headed, because of what’s known as the “paradox of thrift”, which says, quite simply, that if everyone tries to save more money at the same time, expenses will fall – and so will incomes, since one person’s expense is another’s income. So one person’s attempt to save makes it harder for everyone else to do so.

Thus, saving during a recession deepens and/or lengthens the recession. This is why government has to step in and spend money when everyone else is reluctant or unable to do so. Although the concept was popularized by John Maynard Keynes, it can be found in The Fable of the Bees (1714), a book whose ideas about circular causation – the “invisible hand” – preceded Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations by more than half a century.

Bodies and vehicles

I could go on identifying other cognitive confusions that have contributed to our ongoing financial crisis, but instead, I’m interested in getting a grip on how we might start thinking more clearly. For that I turned to Anat Shenker-Osorio, a cognitive linguist who trained at UC-Berkeley with George Lakoff, but whose work is intensely focused on large-sample empirical studies of specific issue areas, such as reproductive rights and economics. I first saw her present her findings at a Netroots Nation panel last year. She did another Netroots Nation panel this year, along with a keynote presentation.

“I use tools from cognition and linguistics to look at political discourse, to understand why certain messages resonate, while others don’t, the ways that people take in information that they’re not conscious of that shape what they assume to be true, what they believe, how they come to judgment,” she explained.

In 2008, she took on a series of projects dealing with how people think about the economy. Progressives were “really really good on critiquing the free market”, and “pretty decent” on articulating their desired goals, she told me. “But where we really really fall down is in the middle,” by which she meant “the explaining, really of how the economy works”.

In particular, progressives lacked coherence in the use of what’s known as “cognitive metaphors”, ways of structuring how we think of abstract entities in terms of more concrete ones. Cognitive metaphors are perfectly natural, she explained. “Anything that we cannot see or hold – it’s not a cup, it’s not a paperclip – we’re always going to explain it to ourselves by likening it to something that is tangible.”  For example, fear can be thought of as fluid in a container, “filled with fear”; an enemy or opponent, “fear crept up,” “fear overwhelmed”;  an illness, “sick with fright”; a supernatural being, “haunted by fear”; etc.

Looking first at public expression, in the form of written samples, Shenker-Osorio discovered that progressives were all over the map in terms of the economic metaphors they used. “In speaking about the economy as if it were, at an unconscious level, so many different things we’re essentially conveying that we don’t know what it is at all,” she said. “And so it’s very hard to believe us when we say, ‘But we know how to handle it. We know what to do with it.” An example she gave as a panelist at Netroots Nation this year mixed three different metaphors (body, vehicle, and building) in a single short sentence: “Our economy is unhealthy, we need to kick-start our economic engine and build the sustainable foundation for growth.”

But when she turned to private discussions with 21 leading progressive economists, she was delighted to find a much more coherent use of one particular metaphor. The dominant metaphor in public discourse is a conservative one – the economy as body – with implications that tend toward passivity and acceptance of whatever ills there may be. The dominant progressive metaphor – the economy as machine, particularly a vehicle – has opposite implications towards action, and taking steps to fight against economic disasters.

She explained that the first metaphor produced language like “‘it’s healthy’; ‘it’s unhealthy’; ‘it’s thriving’; ‘it’s suffering’; ‘the patient is in cardiac arrest’; ‘we need to resuscitate the patient'”; while the second produced “‘it’s on the right track’; ‘it’s on the wrong track’; ‘it’s veering out of control'” and, of course, “the ‘stock market crash'”.

The significance of these two different metaphors turns out to be profound. Bodies – and thus, by implication, economies – are largely self-regulating, hence “It is best left on it’s own, except in cases of dire emergency,”  Shenker-Osorio explained. What’s more, “it has volition and will … it gets angry, it gets upset, it needs to be appeased”. Furthermore, “in almost all the talk that you hear, the economy is, in fact, in subject position, which is the other thing that I found most startling. ‘It’s suffering’; ‘it’s healthy’.” People are definitely secondary to the economy in this metaphor system.”

Things changed significantly with the second metaphor. “The most fundamental thing we know about vehicles is that they have drivers. The idea of a whole bunch of unmanned vehicles on the road … That’s how you have crashes,” she said. In short, this metaphor “suggests at the most basic level the economy requires control”. It also quite naturally implies “going where you want to”.

In related research into how we describe inequality, she discovered multiple metaphors as well. One of the most common was that of a gap, which unfortunately suggests that it’s simply something natural, even when it’s as vast as the Grand Canyon – an implicit “how” that doesn’t help progressives tell their story. On the other hand, a less common metaphor – that of a barrier – seems less natural, more deliberate. What’s natural is to keep moving. Barriers seem inherently un-natural, unfair, inviting us to question.

While progressives’ public writing was all over the map, the consistency from her interviews filled her with “incredible … happy surprise”. And when their discussions turned to how people experience the economy, “they started to speak to me in a journey metaphor, which is one of the foundational metaphors that we have in English”, she explained. “It’s why we say ‘I’m spinning my wheels here at this job’, or ‘I feel like this relationship isn’t going anywhere’. … This is not Republican, it’s not Democrat, it’s not conservative, it’s how we think and talk about life.”

The implications were tremendous, as Shenker-Osorio quickly explained:

“What’s incredible about this is that suddenly we have kind of what the right has – a metaphor for what the economy is – it’s a vehicle – and we have a non-metaphorical model to say why the economy is, its purpose, to get us to our destination, in the same way the right has a metaphor to say what the economy is – it’s a body – and why it exists: it exists to implement a very specific Christian morality, to punish the bad and reward the good.”

But there was even more – a metaphorical convergence.

“What’s even more striking is how incredibly this language fits together with what I had seen about inequality, where inequality is a barrier. It stops you from getting where you want to go – which, how neatly does that fit into our vehicle-journey notion?”

When she first realised this, she was astounded. “Is it possible that this is all this logical?” she remembers thinking. “A coherent worldview that has a corollary reality in how economics actually works? Wow! Really? We have one of these?”

It may take awhile to catch on to what a big deal this is. The organic metaphor tells people to accept the economy as it is, to be passive, not to disturb it, to take a laissez faire attitude – leave it alone. This attitude underlies Obama’s neo-liberal economics as much as it does the conservative economics of his bitterest foes in the Republican Party. It relates to decades of social psychology research into what social psychologists call the “just world” fallacy, and systems justification theory, ways in which clear injustices are systematically explained away. Bad things don’t happen to good people, they reassure us. There is a greater good, and those who suffer failed to act accordingly in some way.

Yet, for all the conservative talk about private property and individual rights, privileging the economy this way fundamentally disempowers individuals, and severely limits the roles they may play. This becomes readily apparent when one turns to the contrasting vehicle and journey metaphors, which place individual agency front and center, stressing autonomy and self-determination, with as many different forms of the good as people may manage to find for themselves. Yes, it may take an activist government to build an interstate freeway system, and to run a safe, complex air transportation system, but the result is vastly more individual freedom of movement. The same is true when government regulations make cars and planes substantially safer than the free market alone made them.

The family budget, revisted

Returning to the misleading federal budget/family budget analogy, Shenker-Osorio has three very important things to say. First, as she put it to me: “The nation as family thing, that sort of exists in the same kind of place as the family as journey. It’s there, it’s not going to be tampered with. It’s not good or bad, it’s just there.” Second, as she pointed out last year, families routinely do go deep into debt as a way of making their lives richer. They’re called home mortgages and student loans. Third is the hidden workings of how the organic, economy-as-body metaphor leads us astray.

“When we talk about, as we hear all the time now, ‘living within their means’ and ‘the government needs to tighten its belt, just like the American household needs to tighten its belt’, what’s going on there, the offense is not so much the application of the nation as family, the offense there is the economy as the body,” she said. “Because basically what we’re saying is that the economy is a person, it has a belt, and you could tighten it. Think about what we think about people who just eat and eat and eat, and are perceived by us to be gluttinous. There’s this idea that they should just eat less.”

More sharply, she added, “Basically what’s going on there is kind of akin to ‘You just ate Thanksgiving dinner, and seriously, you’re ordering pizza?’ That’s just sick”.

Put this way, the moral logic of the conservative economy-as-body metaphor could not be more obvious. But the moral logic of the progressive vehicle and journey metaphors is equally clear.

“A car with no gas does not go anywhere. It’s not like, ‘Oh my gosh, the car is empty again! That gluttinous car!’ You know – ‘I just filled that car last week!'” she said, sounding more than a little like Stephen Colbert. “There isn’t this kind of stigma about why do you keep putting in more stuff. It’s just understood. The car will not go if it does not have what it needs to go. And so there’s not this sort of moral quandary about ‘It’s just evil for government to spend money when it’s carrying a deficit.'”

Of course, this isn’t just a neat little metaphor. It actually reflects basic macro-economic reality – unlike the economy-as-body metaphor, which only describes a simplified ideal model that’s been repeatedly found wanting in describing how real world economies actually work.

Where does all this leave us, then? Still dazed, perhaps, but no longer nearly so confused. We have the essential tools in hand, not just for making sense of how conservative economics has once again wrecked the world economy, but also for making sense of how we are mislead in our most basic thinking about the economy, and how we ought to be thinking. There’s an enormous amount of work left to be done. But the basic blueprints are now in hand. It’s time to get to work.

Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newsletter.

You can follow Paul on twitter @PaulHRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.