This article represents the views of its author, T.H., not necessarily those of the C.C.S.
Published: February 2013

What we are talking about when we talk about economics

We all like to talk about economics. However, we don't talk about economics the way economists do—or businessmen, or technocrats—any more than we talk about physics the way physicists do.

As a substitute for the correct technical terminology we use metaphors, analogies, rhetoric and other simplifications to come to terms with the bewildering actuality. We are all used to jovial physicists with wild facial hair appearing on television, hamming up the mad scientist character-type, to explain —using eggs, billiard balls, balloons, or whatever comes to hand—a concept that took three hundred years' slog by humanity's finest brains to uncover. All this in fewer than three minutes, lest the audience nips out for a cup of tea and misses the adverts.

These simplifications are so common that we have become desensitized to the process. Richard Feynman, a well-known physicist noted for his commitment to bringing science to a wider audience, once refused to explain a concept with resort to metaphor when prompted—because he felt it would be dishonest to do so without using the requisite mathematics. His view may or may not be correct but it reminds us how embedded these rhetorical strategies are in public discourse when it comes to communicating complex situations. It also makes us consider how these explanations might be exploited in more contentious areas than physics.

Most people are well-aware, when watching a scientist-turned-showman, that they are pupils in a calculated learning strategy. They do not assume that this is how real science is conducted. It is just infotainment, that's all. Later, the amusing mad scientist will blow up an old car to demonstrate some principle or other. It's all a wholesome Saturday night Saturnalia.

There are some areas, though—economics is one—where people forget that concepts are being simplified, either for their benefit or for the speaker's rhetorical purpose. Most people forget because they think they know something about the subject. We see politicians and the media discussing the economy all the time, and they talk of prices, wages, taxes, and other familiar things. We choose governments based on their economic policies, so it's obvious we understand the main issues well enough. Maybe we wouldn't recognise a neutrino even if it passed straight through us, but economics isn't the same: it's tangible, it's in our pocket, jangling about with the house keys, or so we think.

When people talk about economics we can observe two processes at work. On the one hand there is the uncritical acceptance of simplified or distorted explanations provided by politicians or media rhetoricrats. And, at the same time, people create their own home-spun attempts to explain a complicated subject: explanations which they may imagine are self-created, or co-created in their immediate social circle but are, in fact, formed from fragmentary, orphaned ideas acquired through half-remembered school lessons, movies, fairy-tales, admonishments from parents, and so on.

SARAH: I was talking to John about the, err, the money, and…um…the banks and that, and he said—I thought this was interesting—that it all comes down to the irresponsibility, and the pressure. There's a lot of pressure in that job. And they're young men—they want everything now, like the footballers. It's greed.

RACHEL: Yeah, it's just crazy. What can you do? That's how the lads are.

We've all been in these conversations, trapped within the boundaries identified by Gramsci as 'common sense', group-think synthesized from the afore-mentioned elements which leads people to think they are creating their own reasoned thought—when, in fact, they are being ventriloquized by more influential ideas.

A regularly recurring—although not necessarily only—device for explaining the economic crisis has been the familial metaphor. When a state's political discourse is dominated by references to familial relations we could be quite sure, until recent times, that the state would be governed by an autocrat or an anachronism. This is no surprise because in the most advanced capitalist countries the family unit has undergone substantial change over the last fifty years; change which has removed the rhetorical force once attached to it.

In former times, the family was a reassuring metaphor for the nation. The father stood for the state, the unchallenged director within the unit; the mother, and children were the obedient citizens. A symbolic 'father of the nation' is implicitly able to exercise power over the citizens with an especial force, and receive love and affection in return. Now, there is less appeal than before in talking about the family. Unmarried parents, divorces, and step-parenthood: none of these suggest eternal unity and stability—the hallmarks of the nuclear family that once made it so attractive to politicians anxious to convince us that their authority, like Mum's and Dad's, was immutable.

However, there has been a curious development in recent years: a development connected to the global economic crisis, which has propelled the family back into the rhetorical maelstrom. The national debt is discussed as if it were a personal credit card debt. It's a common simplification, one we've all heard people use in everyday conversation but one that's also been taken up in the media and by politicians. The metaphor is often expanded into the familial, so that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a feckless patriarch hiding the national bills behind a clock on the mantelpiece before signing up with a store credit card to pay for his wee bairns' groceries, whereas David Cameron is a model Protestant; his student debts long-paid off, and not a single consumer good bought on hire purchase. His common sense thrift will keep the family afloat. There is also a leftist slant to the rhetoric, where the nation becomes a put upon family, exploited by yob elements—the bankers.

It almost makes sense; after all, the word economics derives from the Ancient Greek οἰκονομία, meaning household management or home administration. But this can't be taken too far. A personal credit card debt is not like the national debt. Families cannot issue bonds, print money or devalue their currency. Yet, people continue to stretch the familial metaphor into absurd contortions because it is a compelling way to talk about the national economy. It would be more sensible to use a company or corporation in the family's stead. These are institutions with which we are all familiar, but the rhetorical effect would not be the same.

By using the family unit we are free to invest ourselves in two opposed moralities. We can choose to posture as the prudent, industrious father imbued with the Protestant work-ethic. In this mode we can imagine ourselves as stern, sensible and prepared to make harsh cutbacks when the need arises. These reductions—no newspaper anymore, Mum—are for the greater good, and we will push these through even though the children cry, and the wife will nag; we have a well-thumbed copy of David Copperfield, and have folded the page with Mr. Micawber's eternal advice,

'Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.'

This view, the virtuous miser, is—for obvious reasons—most popular with the right. Its non-political fraternal idea can be found in the latest fashion within the self-help movement for penny-pinching schemes. Whereas financial self-help used to concentrate on fantastic investment, the new schemes focus on saving money and reducing debt. So we have blogs, like the Simple Dollar, which feature earnest discussions on how to make your own washing machine powder. At its most extreme manifestation the self-help movement mutates from Micawber to Thoureau; the focus changing to eliminating consumerism from your life completely, usually accompanied with the pabulum of Zen Buddhism.

The alternative, and less popular, view is that adopted by social democrats, left-liberals, neo-Keynesians etc. Here the cry goes up, 'Won't somebody please think of the children!' This position is in keeping with traditional gender roles: it is the 'maternal' approach, which argues that cuts to the state's budget are never acceptable because those affected will always be the most vulnerable in society. They are somewhat akin to Lyubov Ranevskaya in the Cherry Orchard, exhausting their bankrupt estate with indulgences that were the norm in better times.

Both positions allow the proponents to feel virtuous; they are placing the country back on an even keel and keeping her form the debtors' jail, or they are protecting the helpless. Of course, neither has anything to do with economics as a science. In a broad sense these trends align to those doctrines prepared to expand or retract the state's budget, and those might be 'Keynesian', 'neo-liberal', or whatever simplified tag is being applied to the competing economic doctrine flitting around the world that month.

There is nothing 'wrong' about conceptualizing economics in this way, save that it serves to trap people in a debate where the only salient economic question can be the size of the bourgeois state. As such, it is a poor heuristic method at a time when economic crisis should be encouraging people to think about the economy in new ways.


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