Don’t Buy It! The language of economic nonsense exposed

A new book offers insights into why we’re still dazed and confused by a totally predictable economic catastrophe.

Republican National Convention
Conservatives view the economy as something natural and believe interference with it is harmful [EPA]

Conservative economic policy threw the entire world into crisis on two different occasions over the past hundred years, and the differences in response – particularly in America – have been as different as night and day. The first time was the Great Depression, in response to which the Democratic Party swept into power, and created the modern national regulatory and welfare state – and along with it, the modern middle class. The second time was the Great Recession, in response to which the Republican Party is now attempting to destroy everything created in response to the first crisis.

What accounts for this staggering difference in response? No doubt there are multiple different reasons one can point to, both economic, and political. Our political system has rarely been more divided and dysfunctional, while the political power of Wall Street has never been stronger. But linguist Anat Shenker-Osorio – whose work I first wrote about here last August, highlights a something else: The role of language in limiting our perceptions of the possible, and shaping our most fundamental understanding of what the economy even is, much less how it might be fixed.

Oh my God! You killed the economy!

To illustrate her point, she cites an episode of South Park, “Margaritaville”, in which the citizens of South Park discover that the economy is a vengeful and angry god, who must be appeased with sacrifice. In the preface to her first book, Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy, she describes it thus:  

“The citizens cower upon realising the truth – the Economy is an angry and vengeful God. Because South Parkers have paid insufficient homage to it, the Economy visits ruination and recession upon them. A character lectures a crowd of rapt listeners, ‘There are those who will say the Economy has forsaken us. Nay! You have forsaken the Economy. And now you know the Economy’s wrath.’

The solution in South Park, as will be familiar to modernday Greeks and low-income Americans, is sacrifice.”

Portrayed with South Park‘s comic brilliance, it’s hysterically funny. But in real life, it’s an enormous tragedy, because, as Shenker-Osorio proceeds to show, we really do actually think that way – not always in terms of the economy as a god, perhaps, but if not, then as a conscious living being – “one that by all means we should avoid hurting“… and that matters more than actual people do.

And what sorts of things hurt or upset the economy? Why, funny you should ask: the very same things that upset conservatives, of course!

“Other things that supposedly give the economy apoplexy? Take your pick: regulations, welfare programmes, government spending, helping the poor, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

But when was the last time you heard a discussion about whether a potential policy might hurt, harm, weaken, or threaten people? Americans like you and me.”

Cognitive metaphors and unconscious influences

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Before going any farther, it’s important to note that the background for Shenker-Osorio’s argument rests on two well-established facts, which contradict a lot of what many people – particularly educated liberals – tend to believe. The first comes specifically from the study of cognitive metaphors: people routinely and unconsciously use concrete, experientially-gounded models to talk about relatively abstract ideas or phenomena. The economy is just the sort of thing that we’re always going to describe in terms of some sort of simplifying model or another. The only question is which one(s) were going to use, and what the results of that choice will be.

The second fact is a more general truth about how our minds work – that unconscious influences are generally more powerful than conscious ones, because we never stop to question them.

So what does it mean for how we think about the economy? Shenker-Osorio spent three years studying this, tracking and cataloging economic writing and speech from across the political spectrum, looking at how economists, politicians, media figures and ordinary people think about the economy. Not surprisingly, she found distinct differences between how conservatives and progressives talk about the economy.

The conservative model

Conservative models tell us that the economy is autonomous (most typically, a self-regulating body) and morally demanding – a view encapsulated in an episode of South Park. Progressive models are less clearly developed, but do exist, however deeply buried they may usually be. They tell us that the economy is a constructed object (most typically, a vehicle) and that it exists to facilitate our varied individual dreams and desires, rather than to impose its desires on us.

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Spelling this out in more detail, Shenker-Osorio explains that conservatives she studied had a relatively coherent way of describing the economy, with two distinct aspects to it. 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.

Second, conservatives described the “why” of the economy as a moral enforcer, rewarding hard work and virtue, and punishing those who fall short. Hence the whole manufactured poutrage at the RNC with an entire night given over to celebrating “we built that”… broadcast to the world from a publicly-financed stadium. As Shenker-Osorio puts it, “Only very bad people need and accept government handouts; the morally upright take care of themselves.” It’s a simple, straightforward, morally compelling message. The fact that it’s utterly false? When it comes to politically persuasive speech, that’s merely a minor detail. The results speak for themselves:

“Conservatives have won elections and diverted policy to their ends by switch-hitting between two important conceptual models: the economy as a natural entity and the economy as a moral enforcer.”

The progressive model

Progressives, in contrast, were either undisciplined, downright self-contradictory or silent. They used a wider variety of metaphors – mixing some purely progressive ones up with ones favouring conservatives. The result was often an incoherent mush, if you listened to the subconscious messaging that people generally hear and accept without any conscious processing.

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. Introducing this model, Shenker-Osorio writes:

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“We can argue, for example, about the need to ‘rev up our economic engine’. Likewise, we can debate whether the economy is ‘on the right or wrong track’ or ‘stuck in a rut’. Progressive economists like James Galbraith and Joseph Stiglitz have communicated in this framework by putting forth ideas about what should ‘drive’ our economy.”

As these examples show, it’s not that hard to find written expressions about the “what” of the economy. But finding a progressive answer to the conservative “why” proved a good deal more difficult, only emerging once she shifted from studying the written work of progressive economists to interviewing them anonymously. What she found was surprisingly simple:

“We explain ourselves by signalling that the economy is a means to facilitate journeys. And I believe it’s our ticket to explaining the experiences (negative and positive) of the individual in the economy as well as selling our vision of how things can and should work.”

She goes on to explain:

“When we think about vehicles, salient considerations include the quality, direction, and speed of movement. Does your car have proper shocks to absorb any bumps? Is the road scenic and well paved or ugly and potholed? Are there giant obstructions or traffic jams making it impossible to go on your way?”

Backing up this model is the fact that the “life is a journey” is “one of the most common and evocative conceptual metaphors in our language”, reflected in expressions like stuck in rut, at a crossroads, back on track, going nowhere, moving along, lost at sea, in the home stretch, carrying baggage, etc.

The shape of words

Although conservatives clearly have had the upper hand over a period of decades, the progressive nature of the journey metaphor and its deep centrality to human experience indicates that progressives have a power advantage in the long run, if they only come to grasp the deeper message of this book. 

Indeed, the journey metaphor is central to defining America itself – not just in the immigrant experience of coming to America to find a better life, but – as Shenker-Osorio points out – in  Jefferson’s memorable expression, “the pursuit of happiness”. The journey metaphor is likewise common to virtually all the world’s religious traditions. Rather than being at a disadvantage in using moral language to talk about the economy, this strongly suggests that progressives have a vast untapped advantage at their fingertips, if only they’d start looking for it.

These are only a few core highlights of what Shenker-Osorio has to tell us. There’s a great deal more that you’ll have to discover for yourself. But I’d be sorely remiss not to mention just one more. One of the studies that she undertook was an examination of how people talk about inequality. The most common ways – most notably, either a vertical or a horizontal gap – all suffered from significant problems. At best they did a good job in describing the what, but they all failed to offer a compelling moral why  why is there so much inequality now, why is it damaging, why is it wrong.

But again, there is a generally neglected progressive alternative that answers such questions, the language of barriers and isolation. Not surprisingly, Shenker-Osorio points out that progressives already have a towering example of how to speak properly about inequality:

“Rereading the speeches of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, I noticed something striking. Although he talks about inequality in almost every sentence, he never mentions ‘gaps’ or uses words like ‘top’ and ‘bottom’. His is in fact the language of barriers – obstacles constructed with the express purpose of keeping people out: ‘One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land’.”

American history is a history of great, even unforeseeable changes. Right now, we seem to be trapped in the absolute negation of change, just when we need it most. Incredibly powerful forces are arrayed against us. But what is on our side is a power within, and part of that power lies in shaping our words to define the shape of the world we want. To claim that power, to make it real, to activate it and share it with others, you cannot do better than to read Don’t Buy It!

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.