I enjoyed reading an article in The Guardian today by Tom Clark about the the language politicians use to talk of economics. Like astrophysics, quantum theory or religion, economics is accessible to the uninitiated (like me) primarily via metaphor, and Clark highlights how readers and listeners are basically groomed by the use of rhetoric. It’s not just the threadbare and unjustified way of speaking of the national deficit and debt as if it were the household purse, but also the aura of “natural” or homely forces at work when talking of “pump-priming” or the “flow” of capital. It’s made me start to list the commonest metaphors, including ones I have read today: “rising tide”, “infrastructure pipeline”, “favourable climate”, “ploughing money into”, and all those other terms associated with organic growth.
Obfuscatory or misleading metaphors might not matter when it comes to religion – or even quantum theory in my case, since I’m unlikely to get invited to CERN – but it does matter when it comes to things that we can, and should, vote on.
Some economic metaphors are brilliant, of course. My current favourite is Warren Buffett’s “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”. Perhaps the best way to combat dodgy metaphors, though, is to carry them to extremes. Does the Chancellor also carry a coin purse and does he have a jam jar for for all the economy’s spare coppers on his hall table?