Stupid economic metaphors
On last night’s Question Time (BBC1), Vince Cable talked about the economy with the phrases “on a tightrope” (twice), and “very dangerous world” (twice). By “world” he meant the abstraction known as the “global economy”.
An audience member on Question Time queried the premise that economic “growth” was necessary. Harriet Harman responded by saying the deficit can’t be cut “if the economy is flatlining”. She didn’t expand on this. So, we have the “growth” metaphor answered with a medical metaphor (for clinical death). Is it surprising that people are confused about economics?
Of course, we need abstractions and metaphors in order to discuss conceptually-complex issues. But what’s evident from last night’s Question Time, and this morning’s newspaper coverage, is that very little but a series of vague, conflicting economic metaphors (representing “conventional wisdom”) gets spoken. Meanwhile, what are we to make of the claim of expert economist, Professor Paul Ormerod, that: “as the twentieth century draws to a close the dominant tendency in economic policy is still governed by a system of analysis inspired by the engineers and scientists of the Victorian era”. (Ormerod, The Death of Economics).
Ormerod explains how a Victorian metaphorical worldview underlies the model of competitive equilibrium which provides much of the rationale for implementing “free-market solutions” to all economic “problems” (an ideological approach which has been dominant in the UK and US since the early 1980s).
One gets the sense that it’s the map, rather than the territory, which is fucked (or “flatlining” or on a tightrope, or staring down a gun-barrel, etc) in the case of economics. And that, in itself, can lead to unfortunate (or even tragic) consequences for the territory.
Meanwhile, the world still has pretty much all the stuff it had last month. And there hasn’t been any sudden global population explosion in the past few weeks. And valid questions on real resources, environmental issues, etc, tend to be framed separately from the “economic crisis” – in “public” (ie media/political) debate at least – compartmentalisation and specialisation.
• ‘ECONOMY HAS BOILS & SMELLS BAD’
• ‘GROWTH LEADS TO OBESE ECONOMY’
• ‘RISING HEMLINES STIMULATE ECONOMY’