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Lakoff: Why the Fiscal Cliff Metaphor Won't Die

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

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill, in Washington,on November 27.



Writers on economics have been talking since the election about why the “fiscal cliff” metaphor is misleading. Alternative metaphors have been offered like the  fiscal hillfiscal curb, and  fiscal showdown, as if one metaphor could easily be replaced by another that makes more sense of the real situation. But none of the alternatives has stuck, nor has the fiscal cliff metaphor been abandoned. Why? Why do some metaphors have far more staying power than others, even when they give a misleading picture of a crucial national issue?

The reason has to do with the way that metaphorical thought and language work in the brain. From a cognitive linguistics perspective, “fiscal cliff” is not a simple metaphor bringing “fiscal” together with “cliff.” It is instead a linguistic metaphor that is understood via a highly integrated cascade of other deeper and more general conceptual metaphors.

A cascade is a neural circuit containing  and coordinating neural circuits in various parts of the brain.

Because we think with our brains, every thought we have is physical, constituted by neural circuitry. Because about 98 percent of conscious thought has an unconscious neural substrate, we are rarely aware of conceptual metaphors. And because the brain is a physical system governed by conservation of energy, a tightly integrated cascade of neural metaphor circuits is more likely to be learned, remembered, and readily activated.

Let’s take a look at the metaphorical complexity of “fiscal cliff” and how the metaphors that comprise it fit together. The simplest, is the metaphor named MoreIsUp, which is a neural circuit linking two distinct brain regions, one for verticality and one for quantity. It is a high-level general metaphor widespread throughout the world, and occurs in a vast number of sentences like Turn the radio up, the temperature fell, and so on.

The economy is seen as moving forward and either moving up, moving down or staying level, where verticality metaphorically indicates the value of economic indicators like the GDP or a stock market average. These are indicators of economic activity such as overall spending on goods and services or the sale of stocks. Why is economic activity conceptualized as motion? Because a common conceptual metaphor is being used:ActivityIsMotion, as in sentences like The project is moving along smoothly, The remodeling is getting bogged down, and so on. The common metaphor TheFutureIsAhead accounts for why the motion is “forward.”

In a diagram of changes over time in a stock market or the GDP, the metaphor used is ThePastIsLeft and TheFutureIsRight, which is why the diagram goes from left to right when the economy is conceptualized as moving “forward.”

When Ben Bernanke spoke of the “fiscal cliff”  he undoubtedly had an mind a graph of the economy moving along, left to right, on a slight incline and then suddenly dropping way down, which looks like a line drawing of a cliff from the side view. Such a graph has values built in via the metaphor GoodIsUp. Going down over the cliff is thus bad.

The administration has the goal of increasing GDP. Here common metaphors apply: SuccessIsUp and FailingIsFalling. Hence going over the fiscal cliff would be a serious failure for the administration and harm for the populace.

These metaphors fit together tightly in the usual graph of changes in economic activity over time, together with the metaphorical interpretation of the graph. From the neural perspective, these metaphors form a tightly integrated neural cascade — so tightly integrated and so natural that we barely notice them, if we notice them at all.

There is, of course, more content to the “fiscal cliff.” Imagine driving toward a cliff with the possibility of going over.  The car you are in is out of control. The cliff is a feature of the natural environment.   If the car goes over, everyone in it would be harmed or killed. Thus, if the economy is a vehicle moving forward without control toward the cliff, there is great and immediate danger, and so the “fiscal cliff” metaphor engenders fear. Thus, knowledge about driving out of control toward a cliff, together with the metaphors cited above, characterizes the implications of the “fiscal cliff” metaphor.

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