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Lakoff: Why the Fiscal Cliff Metaphor Won't Die

The “fiscal cliff” metaphor is misleading. Why is it sticking around?

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Because the conceptual metaphors constituting the fiscal cliff fit together so well and so naturally, it is hard to just jettison it and replace it with an even better integrated metaphor for our economic situation.

Progressive economists like Paul Krugman and Robert Reich have rejected the fiscal cliff metaphor, but with different arguments and different alternative metaphors. Krugman points out that the idea of the fiscal cliff is tied to an economically false argument about the dangers of the deficit. He argues instead that the deficit is too small and that we need to invest more, not less, in the development of the economy. The real danger, he argues is that what is called the “fiscal cliff” is really an “ austerity bomb.” The result would be dangerous cuts in necessary economic investments and safety nets, which would hurt many people and the economy as a whole as well, just as austerity programs in Europe have done. And Krugman has correctly pointed out that using the fiscal cliff metaphor helps conservatives because it accepts their economic theory of deficits.

Reich suggests “bungee-jumping over the fiscal cliff.”  He argues that President Obama should be willing to accept the drastic fiscal cliff cuts in the budget as of January 1. This could either be a “bluff” to scare the Republicans into believing the cuts would be pinned on them. Or it could be his “trump card,” since the new Congress could reverse the cuts after January 1.

I agree with Krugman’s economic analysis and think that Reich’s political strategy is well worth considering.  But from a cognitive linguistic perspective, their alternative metaphors, whatever their policy value, are not going to make it. Take “austerity bomb.” The Austerity Frame is about self-denial. As used in Europe, it assumes two conceptual metaphors, TheNationalBudgetIsAFamilyBudg et and TheNation’ sWealthIsTheGovernment’sCashOnHand. Both are terribly misleading. Great Britain is richer than it has ever been, just as America is, if you count the total wealth of their corporations and citizens. The nations are far from broke, but the requisite money is not in the government’s coffers. A family budget is nothing like a national budget, because the nation has vastly more resources and possibilities than any typical family. These are the austerity metaphors. The causal structure of austerity contradicts the causal structure of bomb. Austerity implies a long-term responsible form of self-denial that makes your situation better. Bombs blow up instantly and harm or kill you.

The idea is that austerity as a national policy would be destructive, and it most likely would be, but the metaphor doesn’t have anything like a tightly integrated cascade of component metaphors.

Reich’s “bungee-jumping” contradicts the inferences that arise from the tightly fitting component metaphors of the “fiscal cliff.” And though Reich’s “bluff” and “trump card” metaphors are instances of the commonplace BargainingIsGambling metaphor, it suggests a political strategy, but does not characterize our economic situation.

There are two morals here. First, metaphors cannot be proposed at will and be expected to work, even if they are intended to fit reality better than existing metaphors. Second, when metaphors are tightly integrated, they are going to be hard to replace and we may have to live by them, as misleading as they may be. The national economic debate will most likely continue to be about the misleading fiscal cliff, not the reality that “austerity bomb” is intended to convey. This is a sad scientific truth.

George Lakoff is coauthor with Mark Johnson of two of the classic books on the contemporary theory of metaphorical thought and language, Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh. He is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

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