Arnold Kling  

More Thoughts on Metaphors

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Let me "+1" David Henderson's recommendation of the article by Max Borders. Borders writes,


We can no more fix an economy than we can fix a rainforest or a coral reef.

I riffed on the metaphor of a rain forest here and here.

Another key issue regarding metaphors concerns what is the correct metaphor for government. For libertarians, government is like a Mafia Godfather, carrying out a protection racket. It is a criminal organization that controls certain economic activities through the use of force. It obtained its status by ruthlessly stamping out competitors.

To someone on the left, government is more like the adult supervision at a day care center. It sets the rules, provides structure, and prevents what otherwise would be dangerous behavior and chaos.

I think of government as a monopoly offering lousy service and determined to maintain and extend its franchise come hell or high water. Imagine General Motors or Microsoft or Blue Cross or Comcast with no competition whatsoever for consumers to choose from, and not even the ability to opt out of driving or personal computing or health insurance or cable TV.

I also see government in terms of insiders and outsiders. My influence there is Murray Edelman (as well as my late father, Merle Kling). When today's WaPo calls the deficit deal The Triumph of Old Washington, I nod my head in agreement. The outsiders get symbolic victories, and the insiders get the real win.

Ordinarily, you expect the insiders to know what they are doing, with the outsiders being crazy. The problem is that on the budget, it may very well be the insiders who are crazy, for conducting business on a day-to-day basis with a budget that blows up over the medium term.

[UPDATE: A reader forwards a link to Eric Voeten, who cites a finding by Keith Poole that the opponents of the debt ceiling bill were anti-establishment types in both parties. My guess is that the TARP vote broke similarly. ]


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



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The author at Roth & Company, P.C. in a related article titled Nice lemonade stand you have there, kid. Shame if something happened to it. writes:
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Richard W. Fulmer writes:

The rober baron - in the original sense of the term - might also serve as a metaphor for government. Much of government, especially in third-world countries, involves setting up roadblocks and then collecting tolls (bribes, campaign contributions) for allowing people to pass.

Tom West writes:

We can no more fix an economy than we can fix a rainforest or a coral reef.

Or an Ozone layer?

The missing ozone layer might still be a problem, but I'd argue that without the government intervention of the Montreal Protocols, we'd be in far more serious shape.

While the government cannot create the conditions for success of an extremely complex system, they often can remove conditions that guarantee failure of those systems.

The point that the rhetoric surrounding economics suggests that the systems can be directly controlled *is* well taken. However, if we assume that economics is like large scale climatology (too complex to be manipulable), doesn't that suggest that *any* course of action besides status-quo could potentially be dangerous, including less regulation?

After all, entirely natural systems do naturally collapse on occasion.

steve writes:

"Ordinarily, you expect the insiders to know what they are doing, with the outsiders being crazy. The problem is that on the budget, it may very well be the insiders who are crazy, for conducting business on a day-to-day basis with a budget that blows up over the medium term."

The view that the insiders are crazy assumes that their incentives are to maximize the long run prosperity of the country. I think their incentives are to loot as much they can from the commons of the government for their own constituents. Just because the commons is looking a little thredbear these days doesn't change the dynamic.

DK writes:

We can no more fix an economy than we can fix a rainforest or a coral reef.

In a sense that these are complex systems which we cannot reliably predict, the statement is a truism. In more prosaic terms though, the analogy is failing because stopping actively damage is a fix in itself. And we can destroy rainforest, coral reef and economy. Yes, we can. Examples abound.

John Papola writes:

Arnold, while I totally agree with the monopoly metaphor for government's actions, I think it's a polite way of saying you're for the mobster metaphor.

Consider that actual monopolies are very rarely long-lived without government protection. Since a metaphor of government can't have government in it and be coherent, what would be the metaphor's way of explaining the persistence of the government's monopoly power? Well, it appears to me that the one true monopoly which government yields like no other is the monopoly of force and legal violence. And they use that monopoly to maintain it. Step too far out of line, and they come to put you in a cage.

So how is this NOT the mobster metaphor in the end? The mob seeks to maintain its monopoly over a business or territory by force. It's provision of protection services can deliver benefits for some people, though it's rife with arbitrariness. In the end, they don't really care about their customers.

Government is a monopoly. But it's a mobster monopoly.

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