Monday, April 20, 2009

The Economic Crisis In A Nutshell

[Unfortunately - by God's mercy, how it pains me so to admit it! - I cannot take credit for this piece; it was crafted by a far greater wordsmith than I can ever aspire to be. - r. raleigh, 4/20]

Yesterday, the New York Times’ Robert Mackey noted the growing number of commentators who are attempting to explain the economic crisis through metaphor and analogy. Some commentators, Mackey notes, have stuck to traditional metaphorical staples—cliffs, craters, and nudity—but others have proffered scrambled explanations involving tiger-riding, tangled mixed metaphors about weapons of mass destruction, and the renovation of houses that are on fire.

Mackey concludes, “Besides a sense of urgency, what these metaphors of war and disaster reveal is a fundamental need to explain somehow what it is that banks actually do to make money these days. While it used to be that a bank’s core business could be understood by anyone able to add, subtract, multiply and divide, in recent years bankers started to place very large bets on calculations that might give pause to people with degrees in quantum physics.”

The metaphors Mackey cites fail to adequately describe the economic crisis because they are too simple, not because the economic crisis is too complex. Complexity of subject matter is no bar to metaphor. It is a challenge to which the worthy metaphor will rise and an opportunity for true metaphorical excellence.

I will achieve this excellence. Here goes:

First, imagine yourself as a passenger on an ocean-going vessel or airplane. You do not understand the inner workings of this ship or plane, nor are you permitted to leave it. The captain of whichever vessel is a distant, dehumanized figure with the unquestionable authority of God and/or National Security, and the vessel has smashed into an iceberg, or is crashing from the sky into an iceberg, as case may be. Furthermore, the ship does not respond to conventional controls and its actual operations are a matter of theory. The ship is the economy. As a passenger, you have several pressing concerns which are subsumed into a generalized feeling of dread, helplessness, and desperate urgency.

To better understand the relationship between yourself and the captain of the plane/ship, please consider yourself a low-ranking member of a pack of hunting animals, such as wolves, or perhaps coyotes. (The more “creative” among you may consider yourselves hyenas, but please limit your consideration to canine animals. Canine social dynamics are requisite to the analogy.)

Now, imagine the forest/plain/field your pack hunts for sustenance has been devastated by overhunting. You and your fellows find yourselves on the precipice of a Malthusian crisis. As some form of canine life, you have limited means of personal expression and broader understanding. You must communicate through barking and/or yipping noises, as well as scented cues and ritualized nonlethal combat.

Place your canine self-construction—as well as the rest of your pack—onto the airplane/ship. This is now a vessel manned, piloted, and populated by a pack of wild dogs or wolves. The situation appears grim. The onboard reserves of antelopes and deer are devastated beyond repopulation, and things are on fire—horrifying, engulfing plumes of orange and blue death.

The economic collapse is that fire. Unlike regular fire, this fire produces charts and graphs instead of smoke. These charts illustrate various metrics and measures describing the rate of the flames’ progress, and the extent to which you are doomed. Like smoke, this information hangs in the air, choking and claustrophobic. The charts catch in the lungs of your brain, at once the first blush and the closest associative understanding we can expect of our apparent destruction—for who can understand the fire? After all, the fire is very similar to the economic collapse, which is very difficult to understand, and you are a coyote, wolf, or hyena, on an airplane or a ship, as case may be.

Some of your packmates bark/yip on the importance of putting out the fire, some have questions as to the cause of the fire, and some are preoccupied by the imminent doom of the plane/ship crashing into whatever object, and are less focused on the fire itself. (The crash is the next Great Depression.)

Several of the fatter members of the pack were responsible for setting controlled fires on the ship, for which they were paid exorbitant sums of antelopes, which is very confusing and morally frustrating. However, apparently the ship’s day-to-day operations were powered by these fires. Emissaries of the mysterious captain insist their arsonist expertise requires their involvement in the firefighting activities, and additional antelope meat, taken from other pack members not connected with the fires. This fire-stoppage is designed to change the vessel’s course. Some wolves insist the airplane/ship should crash/sink to prevent subsequent disasters and others insist on doing nothing whatever, while several have “Gone Galt” and are busily licking themselves. Also, you have no health insurance.

That is the economic crisis, in a nutshell.