Outsourcing Blame: Metaphors of the Economic Crisis

Economic woes blamed on outsourced metaphors…

Metaphor reshapes our thinking, making Play-Doh of our conceptual frameworks. Not sure how plumbing works? Just put it into so-called traffic terms like flow, jam and back-up. Despite the many apparent dissimilarities between water and cars, somehow our minds readily bridge between liquids and groups of solids.

The metaphors one chooses can speak volumes of their interests or opinions. A farmer may use language that reflects the farming experience, or a critic may use metaphors that subtly extol or demean. We are creating cognitive merry-go-rounds that promise return trips to other worlds while safely rooted to reality – no matter which direction the metaphor faces, its center remains unchanged. Some clown may send the mind spinning off-axis with a mixed metaphor: an unexpected turn of cognitive events that renders us dizzy.

The Observatory normally cites individual efforts and misadventures of metaphor in the media. However, on occasion, it is incumbant on us to take note of some cause and effect on rhetoric, then offer tidy introspect on the issue. Case in point: the current financial crisis in America.

Last week, we introduced a few choice metaphors that have joined us to express this crisis. This time, we summon analysis of what we’ve seen. John Oliver of the Daily Show used the metaphor “failure junkie” to describe the core of the problem – arguably the most pungent, accurate and introspective description from within America that we could find.

The long list of metaphoric perspectives could be categorized into boating [shipwreck], weather [perfect storm, hurricane], tectonic [earthquake, tsunami, tidal wave(!)], enemy ambush [twin towers, Pearl Harbor], habit [addiction, enabler], accidental [blunder, crash, train wreck, rescue, bailout], religous [holocaust, Armageddon] and health [heart attack, cancer], among others. Not unusual for a multilegged story to breed a clutch of taglines for us to grab.

What caught our eye was the list when recategorized into innies and outies. It appears that international rhetoric seems far more prepared to place the blame within the U.S. [blunder, shipwreck, train wreck] while American rhetoric is pointing outwards at causes deemed beyond its control [hurricane, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon]. It’s not to say that the language used on both sides of the border does not swing both ways, only that the general concensus within American rhetoric is to outsource the blame (calm down, Lou Dobbs!). This single behavior may be as much symptom as it is cause.

For years, the bears have been beat back by the bulls. This is not only a product of patriotism, hopefulness and exuberance. This is also because there is less money to be made by financial agencies during conservative investment periods than during lending free-for-alls, such as the one we just “endured”. So the marketing firms assured us that although there was no telling whether an investment would go up or down, we should bet red all night anyway. This underlying attitudinal bias helped to create the dot-com bomb and the housing bubble. Since the popular language continues to deflect responsibility it is hard for anyone to imagine any newfound self-discipline, on or off the legislation. The threat is repeatedly framed as from some form of them, so why should we ever change?

The war in Iraq was brought in with language about protecting America and liberating a little-understood foreign land. The autonomous decision to outsource the blame for 9/11 on a country then known to have little or no conceivable connection to the attack left many around the world perplexed. What is more perplexing is that there is increased call to claim some of Iraq’s economic surplus to aid in the cost of the war. This switch of responsibility to cover for one’s own mistakes is one of the hallmarks of the addicted mind.

In this, we find a potential source for the metaphors used in the current financial crisis: the success of the American economy has been a product of maintaining the dream state at the denial of reality. Adding to the federal debt is a means of sleeping in, since the pinch of reality can fade into the future. The failure junkie will do anything to maintain the high.

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