Metaphors Matter

Metaphors matter. They make abstract ideas comprehensible. They frame conversations – the way a picture frame sets the borders and shape of the picture it contains. They’re hugely useful, but you have to realize that they’re not perfect, and understand their limits.

Politically one of the most commonly misused metaphors is a household budget. Balancing a government budget ought to be the same, right? But it isn’t. A government has greater control over its income and a much larger time horizon than a household and that affects decisions in very serious ways. A household can spend more than it makes over the course of a day or a week and then even it out at the end of the month with no problem. A corporation usually aims to do that over the course of quarters or years. A government can do that over the scale of decades or longer. That’s a huge difference and it matters to policy and to human lives. If I refused to buy groceries today because I don’t get paid til next week, I’d go hungry for no reason. If the government refused to feed the poor this year because tax receipts are down, lots of people would go hungry for no reason. But for some reason people claim that balancing a government budget is just like balancing a household budget. You can see the similarities, but a metaphor is not a perfect mirror.

Similarly, governments don’t compete like businesses, and “we need to make our country competitive” is a hugely misleading statement. If I develop a hotel/casino (ahem) and someone else does the same thing across town, then their gain is my loss. In that situation, it makes sense to try and steal customers away from the other casino, keep their staff out, and so on.

Better to compare governments to your neighborhood. When Mr. Jones next door gets a raise at work, I’m not angry. I try not to be jealous either. I want him to succeed! We’re in this neighborhood, this world, together, but too many of the “run government like a business” types think that others must fail for us to succeed. That’s simply untrue, and a business-mindset metaphor makes it easy to believe it without even thinking about it.

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