Arnold Kling  

The Economy as Machine

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Paul Rosenberg writes,

But when she turned to private discussions with 21 leading progressive economists, she was delighted to find a much more coherent use of one particular metaphor. The dominant metaphor in public discourse is a conservative one - the economy as body - with implications that tend toward passivity and acceptance of whatever ills there may be. The dominant progressive metaphor - the economy as machine, particularly a vehicle - has opposite implications towards action, and taking steps to fight against economic disasters.

She is "Anat Shenker-Osorio, a cognitive linguist who trained at UC-Berkeley with George Lakoff."

If the economy is a machine, then perhaps it can be tuned by skilled mechanics. If it is not a machine, perhaps those skilled mechanics will get things wrong. It is not surprising that progressives think in terms of the machine metaphor, while others of us do not think in those terms.

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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Steve Horwitz writes:

As has frequently become the case, it was best said in a hip-hop song:

"The economy’s not a car. There’s no engine to stall. No experts can fix it. There’s no “it” at all. The economy is us. Put away your wrenches, the economy is organic."

mdb writes:

I am disappointed in both metaphors, the body is closed system, just like a machine. An economy is closed in only the same sense that weather is a closed system. A body suggests you know all the inputs, outputs and have a pretty good idea of what happens inside. Flipping a coin isn't as good as going to the doctor to decide on a treatment. From what I have seen from economics, it has a way to go before it competes with the coin flip.

Ray writes:

I agree with mdb above. Neither a machine nor a body is a spontaneous order.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I read a good post on here recently about the dangers of presuming know how your ideological, political, or scientific opposite thinks.

Norman writes:

The body metaphor doesn't really get away from implied intervention, it only changes what sort of intervention. Instead of 'steering' the economy, intervention needs to insure proper diet, exercise, and the occasional setting of broken bones and removal of cancerous tissue. There are a whole host of interventions implied by this type of thinking that do not fit well with a libertarian perspective on the economy.

"The economy is organic" is a good line in a rap, but still not all that laissez-faire.

Ray, evolutionarily speaking, a body *is* spontaneous order. This is not enough, however, to imply all intervention is inappropriate.

Rich writes:

Interestingly, though, many people seem to think of the body as a machine. They treat doctors like auto mechanics and become frustrated when apparently simple things (fatigue, itching) cannot be fixed.

Having said that, I do like the analogy.

Then again: "Proof by analogy is fraud." -Bjarne Stroustrup.

Tim writes:

Strictly speaking, bodies are machines: extraordinarily complicated machines. To say the economy is like a machine and *not* a body is to say the economy is a machine and not an extraordinarily complicated machine. That's a rather audacious claim considering the Economy is, at its base, the sum total of human action driven by the aggregate uniquenesses of seven billion human beings.

ThomasL writes:


Two extra points for referencing the creator of C++.

Lord writes:

Nothing like dumping medicine, heal thyself is so much better, after all, we wouldn't want to impair evolutionary fitness.

ThomasL writes:

I read the article through, and the most striking thing to me was the lack of curiosity as to whether or not the economy is like a machine.

It seemed sufficient to find some consistent metaphor, any metaphor, that seemed to offer expert-directed solutions.

Machines have purpose - check
Machines require expertise - check
Machines are controlled or wielded - check

The economy should have purpose and should be controlled by those with learning and expertise; therefore the economy is like a machine.

However, the author never seemed to ask himself what the economy is, only what what metaphor could be found to best communicate what he thought it ought to be.

John Papola writes:

The economy is a word. There really is no "it". I believe the best metaphor is a rainforest or an ecosystem. With in it there are thousands of related and unrelated ecosystems. And sure, you could argue that an area all operating on the same currency has a kind of circulatory system, where blood poisoning (monetary mischief) manifests in the body/economy in strange ways. In fact, a certain clever English Lord once said that inflation "engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose. Diagnose indeed.

But a body only has one mind. The economy is thus not much like a body. It's far more like a rainforest. But web that isn't right because creativity and invention are what drive an economy made up of humans. These are our most defining traits. Animal habitats change within a much more narrow band. No cat has ever invented a better mousetrap.

So, indeed, the economy IS us and there exists no mechanic because there is no car and there exists no doctor because there is no single body. Even the "blood" of an "economy" flows well beyond the "body" into foreign markets and bodies beyond the doctor's knife and drugs.

We need stable rules (consistent weather) for the people who compose an economic ecosystem to find valuable ways to serve one another sustainably and grow. One would think that the green-minded so-called "progressives" would love this metaphor instead of the ludicrous, industrial age "economy-as-car" metaphor. Alas, communicating something close to reality is not the same as finding the linguistics and marketing language that serve your statist intentions.

Sonic Charmer writes:

The real psychological puzzle here is why those folks most enamored of the (obviously highly oversimplified to the point of cartoonish) metaphor of economy-as-machine - which, depending on who is telling the cartoon, you can control with either levers, kick-start like a car engine, use hydraulic pump-priming, etc. - tend to be the same people who consider themselves highly intelligent and scientific vs those who disagree with them. This, I find fascinating and I wish someone would study it.

Nathan Smith writes:

Start at machine. Move in the direction of body. Eventually you'll get to something like the economy.

To put this another way, the body is like a machine relative to the economy.

However, withing the economy, a lot of machine-like entities arrive. Firms often resemble machines. Particular markets often resemble machines. But the resemblances are transient, and break down just when you start to rely on them.

Evan writes:

@Sonic Charmer

The real psychological puzzle here is why those folks most enamored of the ....metaphor of economy-as-machine.... tend to be the same people who consider themselves highly intelligent and scientific vs those who disagree with them. This, I find fascinating and I wish someone would study it.

My guess is that it's an example of "science as attire." That is, those people do not identify with science because they recognize the value of using observation and experiment to control their anticipations of future events. They identify with science to show off their loyalty to their political faction. Their political faction, in turn, praises science not because it values it, but because science has done a lot of good in the past, and they want their supporters to associate them with that goodness.

Another possibility is that progressives have this tendency to think all conservatives are Young Earth Creationists. And progressives are in many ways more scientific than that group.

George in Cali writes:

I think just talking about metaphors is foolish and only muddles the differences in schools of thought. Anyone can make up a metaphor to support their position. Perhaps it would be wise to simply argue the point based on empirical evidence, then listen to the counters to that specific point and try and address those possible errors. A metaphor is simply a lazy way to get a point across.

John Fast writes:

1. Even if the economy is a body, it can be "tuned up" by a regimen of exercises, meditation, and vitamins and other supplements, with the help of skilled "body mechanics" like personal trainers.

2. I'm fascinated by cognitive dissonance and other psychological issues, and in particular I notice that "progressives" engage in both denial and projection, to such an extent that it's both amusing and horrifying.

3. I hope and pray the countries of the Arab League will listen to the message of this article, and try to fine-tune and otherwise control their economies. Let them have it . . .

Yancey Ward writes:

More and more, I think of the economy, really the interactions of human beings across an almost infinite scope of interfaces, to be neither machine nor body. It is more like a vast intelligence beyond the ability of any of it's parts to control. The progressives are certainly not alone in their hubris to think they can actually exert a control to a desired outcome, but they are particularly arrogant in this regard. A neuron in my right temporal lobe should be so powerful as to determine what I have for lunch tomorrow.

Rich writes:

Okay, try this:

Machines are designed by humans. Bodies are certainly not designed by humans. (Whether they are designed at all is in dispute.)

The economy is not a machine because it is not designed by humans--however much some people would like to believe that it is.

Seth writes:

"If the economy is a machine, then perhaps it can be tuned by skilled mechanics. If it is not a machine, perhaps those skilled mechanics will get things wrong."

Also true: It the economy is a machine, then those skilled mechanics can get things wrong.

I'm not sure what model we hold in our minds (the metaphor itself) is as important as how skilled we think the mechanics are.

If we don't believe the skilled mechanics can get things right, how can we believe that they can get things wrong?

Obviously, they do get things wrong and cause damage. Isn't the politician who limits government's role the skilled mechanic we want?

another bob writes:

the happy result of dispelling the economy-as-car or economy-as-body metaphor is it can dispell the false conflict over who gets to play mechanic or who gets to play doctor.

but then maybe economics is just politics by another means. winning the conflict is the ends, not a means.

Ivin R. writes:

The analogy I teach with is this: The economy is like the weather.

When you say the weather is bad, you are referring to some combination of factors that you find unappealing (cold, rainy, etc.) rather than some directly measurable super-entity known as "the weather". When you say the economy is bad, you are also talking about the sub-elements that we collectively call "the economy".

The metaphor remains valid as I talk about the difference between macro-economy (weather on a national scale) and micro-economy (weather on a local scale). The boundaries we choose to talk about in weather are political rather than physical (rainstorms are not limited to political subdivisions). The same is true in economics.

The most important element of the metaphor is the sheer scope, size, and interconnectedness of the physical climate system that produces weather compared with the scope, size, and interconnectedness of the social and financial systems that produces economic activities.

As pointed out by others - proof by analogy is useless. The analogy simply gives us a set of mental hooks on which to hang certain concepts. It does NOT prove anything.


Cahal writes:

"The economy’s not a car. There’s no engine to stall. No experts can fix it. There’s no “it” at all. The economy is us. Put away your wrenches, the economy is organic."

Put away your wrenches! Those unemployed have to starve for Capitalism to work.

P.S. organic systems require maintenance too.

Oscar writes:

To a great extent the body is a machine that cannot understand itself.

In the same way that planets and stars formed from the settling of cosmic dust, the body economy is not identified by it's current composition but rather the forces and particles which will always behave in a somewhat chaotic pattern, even though there are recognizable parts from time to time. It is these parts which we "understand" and focus on. The problem is that these parts cannot be made to work in a single, elegant, robust formula.

Thus we have different theorists seeing different bodies. Tomorrow's data could well foment a new theory, with heretofore unused variables, some of which may have nothing to do with the metrics we know.

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