Paul Krugman, one of our top economic scholars, recently compared S&P’s downgrade of US credit to the story of the child who kills his parent andthen pleads for mercy because he is a now an orphan. The irony of his analogy iswell taken, but we face multifaceted issues. The Treasury, The Fed, thepresident, the wealthy, the poor, the middle class, Congress, stockmarkets, exchange rates, housing markets, corporate boards, foreign markets, trade deficits, and geopolitical concerns only begin a short list of things being held partially or fully culpable for our current economic predicament.
Some make arguments that include statistics and factual evidence and many have a valid point or two. The inevitable back and forth of our debates are healthy, and given the enormity and complexity of this fiscal crisis, debate is only natural. But a peculiar thing seems to be happening in this discourse. Our leaders and experts rely more and more on analogies to drive home points or explain their own understanding of the issues. To put that in more contemporary terms, when it comes to today’s budget debate, an analogy is like an a***hole. Everyone’s got one.
Entertainers use analogy to point out ironies, expose folly, or express personal sentiments. Jon Stewart and the Daily Show writers have built a solid following from quickly developed hyperbolic analogy. Stewart and Co. recently likened the our economy to a convertible sports car with a removable debt ceiling and only enough seating for a couple of wealthy people. Though this fails to clarify the issues, the creative absurdity juxtaposed with solemn delivery is so unexpected and nonsensical, that one can’t help laughing a little. Adam Carolla, hosting the most downloaded podcast in the America, comparesour budget dilemma to a rowboat filled with six shipwreck survivors who needto row to safety. It’s not fair that only 2 rowing (wealthy taxpayers) ofthe 6 are doing all the while the others freeload (getting tax refunds,welfare, etc). The rowboat analogy is more pointed than the Daily Show’s convertible. The rowboat represents situational variables like the nation, the poor, the wealthy, the efforts needed, the distribution of responsibility, and the looming consequence. But Stewart and Carolla only need to keep us entertained. As artists who get paid to inflate our national debate, audiences encourage them to use their imaginations freely. They aren’t asked to quantify, and we don’t expect them to take all things into consideration.
The nation’s policymakers need to be held to a higher standard than those werely on for laughs. When lawmakers depend on simplified analogies to make decisions about managing a multifaceted national economy, we are in real trouble. John Boenher proposes we run the country like a business and we often hear that our nation is like a family with too much credit card debt. Democrat White House speaker Jay Carny likens the available budget options to the film Sophies Choice, in which the main character must decide which of her children will get to live and which one will die. At best, these may be good as talking points but they are dangerously inaccurate representations of the reality we all face. Analogies like these ignore or overlook all sorts of factors that can’t be neatly and easily plugged into their targeted comparisons. When we use analogies to understand our fiscal situation, we end up ignoring a whole lot of really important stuff. You and I, and our comedians may appreciate analogies that support our inexpert opinions. We weren’t elected to balance a national budget or assure the safety and freedom of 350 million people. Boenher’s business analogy fails to take into account our most basic societal needs such as law enforcement,care for the elderly, and education; and in the same vein Krugman’s murderous analogy fails to account for the any of the reasons for S&P’s downgrade. Is this the right time for our experts and leaders to default to analogy? No one can discount the viability of human analogy-making, but we may want to recognize that many analogies obscure the intersection between reality and our ability to use ideas to drive our understanding of reality.
Analogies like Boenher’s, Carny’s, and Krugman’s short change the will and intelligence of the electorate. Electeds who use analogy as a rallying cry ask us to stop thinking in depth about the actual factors involved indecision-making. They ask us to see decisions as hypotheticals with less than real life consequences. While our leaders’ analogies may occasionally help people understand the peculiarity of a specific event more thoroughly, more often than not they only serve to distance both themselves and their constituents from the reality of the situation, and everyones responsibility to make well-informed choices.