The seven best metaphors for the economy

By Lucy Hooker
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
Car dashboard with warning lights
Image caption,
Economy on the blink? Call roadside rescue

When George Osborne stands up to deliver his Autumn Statement next week, lots of people will be listening out for the numbers.

But spare a moment to check for one other thing.

Will he be promising a blossoming or a breakdown? Or will there be more of David Cameron's flashing lights?

It may sound like the usual car crash of meaningless business cliches.

But choosing the right economic metaphor could be more important than you think.


With his "red warning lights are once again flashing on the dashboard of the global economy" David Cameron reformulated an old classic: the economy as a broken down vehicle.

This one is loved by all politicians since it implies that they'll have a quick tinker under the bonnet and get you back on the road and home in time for tea and crumpets.

"Metaphors are not just a pasted-on ornament," says Deirdre McCloskey, author of "The Rhetoric of Economics".

"They're terribly consequential," she points out.

So what does this tell us about the way David Cameron sees the economy?

"The way most politicians do," she says.

"All men of power think they know everything. They think the natural order of things should be manipulated."

"There are flashing lights. And he's the man to fix it," she adds.

A force of nature

The financial crisis triggered a veritable tsunami of apocalyptic metaphors, many of them meteorological in nature.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Time and tide wait for no economic adjustment programme

These tend to be more useful for a chancellor who wants to highlight the remote causes of the country's economic plight, and back in 2011 George Osborne did indeed promise we would "ride out the storm".

But there's a limit to what you can do in the face of a perfect storm. Except perhaps batten down the hatches.

So this image doesn't satisfy left wing commentators like Anat Shenker-Osorio author of the book "Don't Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy".

She thinks it's used to justify government inaction.

"The weather is understood as outside of our control, capricious," says Schenker-Osorio,

"Of course in winter it's cold. We can all whine and complain but that's how it is."

For the same reason the right also favours tidal analogies.

Like King Canute there is little we can do, although as metaphor-loving investor Warren Buffett pointed out, a receding one can help clarify who has been skinny-dipping.

Patient on a trolley

Image source, PA
Image caption,
If you can't feel a pulse, government intervention is deemed to be justified

A medical analogy is most favoured by journalists including, by his own admission, our very own Robert Peston.

He finds himself drawn to "anaemic recovery" and "economy on steroids" as a way to help us all get to grips with what is going on.

He is in good company: Ben Bernanke when he was chairman of the US central bank said credit was "the lifeblood of the economy".

Plus for hacks the hospital scenario offers plenty of scope for doses of bitter medicine, flat-lining heart monitors, and melodramatic life and death scenarios.

Ideologically it allows them to sit on a metaphorical fence. The right is happy to view the patient as largely self-healing. The left is keener for the doctor to always be on call, just in case intervention is required.

Unfortunately the image is now so over-used it is practically dead on arrival.

Going over the top

In George Osborne's Mansion House speech this summer he dropped in a mention of Winston Churchill (as he's been known to do before).

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Don't shoot: they're future business partners

The phrases "we will not waver" and "we must win this battle" were marshalled.

But the real champion of the battlefield metaphor is Warren Buffett, reputed to be the western world's most successful long term investor.

He viewed the financial crisis as "an economic Pearl Harbor" and blamed in part the "financial weapons of mass destruction", such as derivatives.

It may have helped illustrate the scale of the challenge, but Professor McCloskey thinks war vocabulary is dangerous.

If people think they're fighting a battle, they become preoccupied with competing and relative strength and they don't see the ways in which we benefit each other.

At the end of the nineteenth century the British press talked of a "German invasion" when it was products like steel and toys crossing the channel.

"All the aggressive talk of things that were like war, contributed to making actual war," she says.

Give them a medal

Sporting metaphors are favoured at the Bank of England, buoyed up perhaps by the success of London 2012.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
"Shall we just sweat out this recession?"

The Bank's chief economist Andrew Haldane likes to spin a cricketing metaphor when considering whether the bank should "play off the front foot" or take things more defensively over interest rates.

Possibly this baffles his Canadian boss Mark Carney who relies instead on a "trusty canoe" to "navigate the most rapid and treacherous waters" suggesting a more adrenaline fuelled approach to interest rate setting.

Since then though he has predicted more of a long hard slog if we're to "win the economic marathon".

Given that we try to read meaning into every utterance central bankers make, their choice of metaphor must be worth scrutinising.

Watch out for standard issue yellow jerseys for BoE staff if the recovery stays on track.

The housekeeper's purse

This one was Mrs Thatcher's meat and drink.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
"Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country." M. Thatcher.

And it has the advantage that everyone can relate to a bank overdraft (see also George Osborne's "maxing out on the nation's credit card").

This metaphor argues that you can't spend more than you earn.

Except that in these days of multiple credit cards and four-times-salary mortgages that's a lot less true than it used to be.

Economists on the left object no end to the idea that a country running a deficit is akin to a household running one.

After all, the country can keep borrowing for significantly longer before the bailiffs show up.

Ian Birrell, newspaper columnist and former speechwriter for David Cameron says: "The point about fixing the roof when the sun was shining may on one level have been a slightly false analogy."

"But on the other it did drive home a political message that Labour spent too much money and had to face the consequences," he adds.

The pie's the limit

Another classic, but this time not at all suited to the palates of the right.

Image caption,
Whichever way you slice it...we'd all rather have a bigger serving.

Keith Hennessey, director of the National Economic Council under President George W Bush particularly dislikes this one.

"The pie metaphor for the economy is misleading and damaging," he writes in his blog.

"A pie has a predefined size …..some argue we can and should simply re-slice the new, bigger pie to produce more equitable pieces.

"Those who do usually ignore that their actions would make the economy smaller," he adds.

Similarly you can't have your cake and eat it.

Nevertheless it might still be worth bearing in mind if you're a chancellor facing tough spending round negotiations.

See also: belt tightening.

All rosy in the garden

The first ever economic metaphor was an ecosystem-based analogy.

Image caption,
In the 18th century, Bernard Mandeville suggested a worker bee focusing on self-interest could lead to prosperity in the hive

Bernard Mandeville's 1705 "Fable of the Bees" contains more than a hint of "greed is good".

Interestingly Mandeville was praised both by the father of modern right wing economic theory, Friedrich von Hayek, and also John Maynard Keynes.

But these days gardens and jungles are seen as a bit of a cop out.

"Metaphors from nature are always suspicious because the speaker is, in effect, saying 'not my fault', 'nothing I could have done'", says Phil Collins, a former speechwriter to Tony Blair and The Times' chief leader writer.

"The task of economic policy is to ensure that [the economy] is not a jungle at all."

And perhaps it is safer to avoid metaphors altogether.

After all, Norman Lamont spotted a horticultural resurgence before others did in 1991 and was pitch-forked by his critics.

Would that have happened if he had merely seen "some signs the recession may be coming to an end" and left the "green shoots" well alone?