Expand Your Vocabulary: metaphor shear

Neal Stephenson’s 1999 essay In the Beginning Was the Command Line defines metaphor shear as the sudden realization “that you’ve been living and thinking inside a metaphor that is essentially bogus.” His example is how word-processing’s “document” metaphor fails to prepare you for a system crash or power failure.

Until the moment that it disappears from the screen, the document seems every bit as solid and real as if it had been typed out in ink on paper. But in the next moment, without warning, it is completely and irretrievably gone, as if it had never existed.

Our collective political conversation uses a lot of metaphors: the safety net, the left-center-right spectrum, Munich, surgical strikes, and … well, even the idea that we’re having a collective “conversation”. These figures of speech can be useful simplifications, but they also obscure aspects of the current situation that can suddenly become very important.

Bad metaphors are a particularly serious problem in understanding economics. For example, the idea that the government’s budget is like your household budget. (It would be, if your household could print its own currency and get the Chinese to trade you stuff for it.)

Warren Mosler’s Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy (my two-part review was here and here) was one big take-down of the metaphor of money as something solid. If you think that way, the U. S. government could “run out” of money. A more accurate metaphor is frequent-flier miles, which Delta will never run out of.

A related bad metaphor is the idea that saving money is like stock-piling goods. It works that way for an individual — putting aside money to buy a car two years from now works even better than buying an extra car now and storing it for two years. But the same idea doesn’t work for society as a whole. (That’s a composition fallacy, which I explained two weeks ago.)

In an agricultural economy, if everyone decides to can more of their vegetables and store them in the basement, the economy hums along normally and the prospect of a winter famine goes down. But if everyone decides to sell their produce now and save the money to buy food this winter, no food is put aside and they have a recession. Setting aside goods and setting aside money are (in the large scale) completely different.

A lot of these bad metaphors come together when we talk about Social Security. Future generations either will or won’t have the ability and the commitment to produce enough goods and services to care for their elders. The size of the number that represents the Social Security Trust Fund has nothing to do with it.

Mosler’s dismissal of this notion is on target:

Let’s look at it this way: 50 years from now when there is one person left working and 300 million retired people (I exaggerate to make the point), that guy is going to be pretty busy since he’ll have to grow all the food, build and maintain all the buildings, do the laundry, take care of all medical needs, produce the TV shows, etc. etc. etc. What we need to do is make sure that those 300 million retired people have the funds to pay him??? I don’t think so!

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  • Jonathan Korman  On November 1, 2011 at 1:08 am

    Your allusion to Munich reminds me of Billmon’s examination of the metaphorical lessons of metaphorical Munich as compared to reality.

    “In the neocon wisdom tale, Munich is always about Neville Chamberlain and that scrap of paper. But that’s only half the story – or not even half. Hitler might never have risen to power in the first place if the allies had dealt justly with Germany and the other defeated powers at Versailles, or if the Western governments of the 1920s and early ’30s had shown one tenth the willingness to compromise with the democratic governments of the Weimer Republic that they later did to appease the Nazi regime.

    The source of much of Hitler’s political appeal – and the topic of most of his stump speeches before coming to power – was the spinelessness of the Weimer politicians in kowtowing to the Versailles Treaty, and the need for a strong leader who would stand up to the allies. The British and French only understand force, the would-be Furhrer shrieked. Germany must take what was rightfully hers, instead of going hat in hand to plead for concessions.

    And of course, the allies proved Hitler right …. “

    • weeklysift  On November 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

      My favorite example of pulling multiple lessons from the same example is from Deep Space Nine when Dr. Bashir is trying to explain “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” to the Cardassian refugee/tailor/spy Elim Garak. Bashir tells the story and draws the moral: You shouldn’t lie, because then people won’t believe you when you tell the truth.

      Cardassian culture is all about control of information, so the idea that you shouldn’t lie is anathema to Garak. He asks if Bashir is sure that’s really the moral the story teaches. When Bashir responds by asking what other moral there could be, Garak doesn’t miss a beat. “Never tell the same lie twice,” he explains.


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