Selected Skirmishes: Methaphorically Speaking


When David Stockman spilled the beans, informing The Atlantic Monthly that Ronald Reagan's political game plan was to use economic growth as a Trojan Horse, slashing tax rates for the rich on the old trickle-down theory of macroeconomics, he had to be taken to the woodshed by his boss, who scolded him like a Dutch Uncle.

I try not to write this way on a good day. I was just conducting a little experiment, seeing how many metaphors I could cram into the space of one sentence. I count about six and a half. What fascinates me about the use of metaphors in political discourse is the manner in which the tool of man becomes the master of thought; how the simple choice of expression—a seemingly neutral prop to further understanding—rigs the philosophical outcome.

All political discussants grasp this intuitively. That's why, when arguing for tax cuts, Professor Laffer alertly shuns "trickle down," selecting instead the Kennedy-esque "a rising tide raises all boats." Economists, in fact, have a much older, more respectable, if boring credo: "gains from trade." All three clichés refer to precisely the same phenomenon—increased economic activity*—while implying radically different magnitudes of improvement for the typical U.S. citizen. (*I here have attempted to employ a relatively neutral term…it's tough.)

Yes, it is sort of a game, but games are great metaphors for real life—or even politics. Supply-siders, despite the able contributions of Messrs. Reagan and Laffer, should have played around with "showers of riches," "flooding the fisc," "drowning the depression," "green thunder"—something torrential, going with the metaphorical water flow but turning up the spigot.

When such language tricks work, whole constituencies wrap themselves around catchphrases that seal arguments before they are begun. A flagrant example has already been slipped into this article: There is no trickle-down theory of macroeconomics (apart from the quite sedate "gains from trade"). The slander was merely forwarded as a pop put-down of low-tax policy. The slander stuck. Reagan's tax cuts have not.

The metaphorical struggle is waged on a thousand different socioeconomic battlegrounds. The "homeless" were once "bums, hobos, drifters, bounders." Homeless is more lucrative. (The U.S. government never appropriated billions for bums, now, did it?) But the term is only a metaphor: Everyone has a home, by definition. What many people lack is a house or an apartment, but houseless is a really crummy term with which to rally sympathy for people who are down on their luck. (I know you're catching all these and playing along on the home version, right?)

The metaphor is a political detection device trained on the innermost values of those who speak. When the empty-headed George Bush lambasted Michael Dukakis (no, that's not the proof of the vacuum; other evidence abounds) for being soft on the Pledge of Allegiance, liberals, missing the importance of the metaphor, screamed that the incredible lightness of the issue made the attack scurrilous. One almost had to be a graduate of Harvard University to miss the Ailes/Bush ploy: They were smokin' out Mikey's gut feelings 'bout America. Mikey flunked the Pledge test; Mikey flunked the whole damn presidential prelim.

A really cool metaphor shifts the entire burden of proof. Flag burning, for instance, is a powerful symbol of America bashing that triples the pulse rates of insecure patriots everywhere. "What do you mean you think someone should be allowed to burn the flag?" One has to argue back just to get to scratch. In a crowded public forum, listeners are scarce. And for the few who attempt discourse, the extra explanation required of the presumptively guilty party soon turns into tendentious whining. That itself provokes. "Why don't you just get behind America, rather than tossing out all this First Amendment mumbo jumbo, you pathetic little pinko?" Miller Time arrives quickly in this fixed debate.

Perhaps no modern metaphor is more effective than viewing the welfare of black Americans as the product of a race with whites. When Lyndon Johnson spoke of the need for affirmative action in 1965, he adroitly pinned it to the image that lasts to our time: It does little good to free a man's feet of chains, he said, when the race is half over. Countless others have exploited this vision of a track at which the state may stagger positions and handicap horses in order to make the home stretch a fair heat.

The analogy stinks. Social life is not a race; there certainly is no common starting line, no pace car, no flag, no final lap, no photo finish. Economic and personal achievement is more like a picnic where folks plop down all over the place, napping, playing, fighting, striking fires, grilling steaks, kicking back, rolling in the hay. To interrupt this incredibly complex mosaic of social activity—where individuals in fact set their own goals—with a batch of "free spin" coupons from Washington is to set off a chain of events that has none of the order or predictability of moving a starting line up a foot or two. To think of affirmative action as a friendly shove into the fast lane of life is to vastly oversimplify the multidimensional tracks upon which human beings actually choose to run.

But don't let me rain on your parade. I only meant to trickle down.

Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics at the University of California, Davis. This year he is a visiting scholar at Columbia University.