Comment: Why bad metaphors are stopping you thinking clearly about the economy

Need for speed: Economics is frequently discussed with metaphors about movement
Need for speed: Economics is frequently discussed with metaphors about movement

By Matt Hawkins

Slowly but surely, a serious reassessment of the merits of economic growth and capitalism is beginning to enter mainstream debate. Back in 2009 when professor Tim Jackson wrote his seminal work Prosperity Without Growth he stated that "questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists, and revolutionaries". Five years later and with inequality on the rise, house prices booming beyond the reach of ordinary buyers, and the threat of climate change looming ever larger, a change is in the air. Revolutionaries, it seems, are now topping the Amazon Bestseller lists. Thomas Piketty has become, if such a thing exists, an economics celebrity with a book that has fundamentally challenged some of the underlying assumptions about the efficiency of capitalism in delivering benefits for all.

Yet even though the debate about economics has been thrown wide open, even contributors to left-leaning publications seem unable to make the leap between the problem of capitalism and a solution that doesn't revolve around increasing our net financial wealth. This month the OECD painted an incredibly gloomy picture of how the world will look in 2060 if we continue on down the same economic path: entrenched inequality and climate disaster await. In reading Channel 4's economics editor Paul Mason's response in the Guardian I was struck by the extent to which even an article that openly discussed the need for a renewed debate about the future shape of our economy employed very a traditional growth-orientated language and framework. The word 'growth' was used 11 times. Climate change was presented as a threat to the growth of the global economy, not to humanity as we know it. Productivity, like the economy itself, was portrayed as an entity that can and should go on growing forever.

It's as though we haven't developed a vernacular that we can employ to describe an economy that isn't constantly moving in some direction. The celebrated linguist George Lakoff has shown how our understanding of the world around us is largely framed by the metaphors that we use to describe it. Steven Pinker too has written extensively on this topic – arguing that the metaphors we used largely boil down to ones involving space, time, and force. Goals are destinations. Time is a moving object. Love is a journey. Arguments are wars.

Economics can't escape our need for metaphorical analogies. The communications analyst Anat Shenker-Osorioa has spent a great deal of time delving into the language that politicians, the media and wider public use to describe the economy. She's found that the chief metaphors we rely-upon all revolve around movement: "Government has to rev up the economy", "an economy that sputters along", and "America's economy could be driven". The success of an economy depends on its ability to continue along the desired trajectory: we say "the economy has fallen off the cliff" or "it's on the right path".

What we lack, however, is a metaphorical universe that we can call upon to describe an economy that doesn't move other than using the term 'stand-still' which, in itself, implies the lack of something desirable - continuous movement. This makes trying to describe such an economy a jarring experience and hardly something that can roll off the tongue of a economics commentator.

It reflects the fact that the media's framing and discourse on economics is heavily biased towards a growth-orientated narrative. This makes it hard for us to accept the idea of an economy that doesn't grow, that stands still but nonetheless delivers, as professor Tim Jackson envisaged, prosperity for all. Without the language to call upon, newspaper articles, reports, and every-day conversations will subconsciously continue to employ the same frames, reinforcing the values and economic theories they support. This is especially true for economics laymen such as myself, who lack the technical language in our word-banks to help us formulate a new picture of how the economy could look without relying on tired-old frames and worn-out expressions.

For this to change, we look to our media – the chief communicators through which we receive our economics education. Whilst the performance of the Ftse is still displayed using visually alarming colours of red (for negative growth) or green (for positive) and hourly news bulletins still insist on telling the world how the stocks are faring, we're still a long way from developing and spreading a new economics language that doesn't worship at the altar of growth. But we know that the media take their cue from politicians, campaigners and researchers - and with a new wave of economics thinking emerging from these quarters, we have cause for hope. 

Matt Hawkins is a Green party activist who works in the charity sector.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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