How metaphors shape our view of the economy

Heard this segment yesterday on NPR’s Marketplace about how metaphors shape our view of the economy and was astounded to learn of the existence of the Phillips Machine, a hydraulic machine designed by New Zealand economist Bill Phillips in the 1940s that models economic activity by pumping water through a series of chambers and pipes. Economics is, of course, drenched in metaphors of money as obeying the laws of fluid dynamics. Liquidity is the ability to quickly convert assets into cash. A firm is solvent when it has plenty of liquid assets. Cash flow occurs at the confluence of revenue streams. A company floats shares in an initial public offering. Dark pools are platforms that allow share trading without revealing prices, even to the participants, until the trades are completed. Banks get bailed out when they are too big to fail. (Consumers don’t, alas.) Governments prime the pump by pouring money into the economy (er, except in the euro zone…). When you need money, you can tap a friend, sponge off relatives, dip into savings or—if you’re prepared to be unscrupulous—skim a little something off the top. When growth is buoyant, a rising tide lifts all boats. When options are underwater, though, checking your investment portfolio feels like snorkeling into a shipwreck.

Amazing to learn how Phillips literally embodied these metaphors in his machine. This description from the Wikepedia entry gives an idea how it works:

The machine “consisted of a series of transparent plastic tanks and pipes which were fastened to a wooden board. Each tank represented some aspect of the UK national economy and the flow of money around the economy was illustrated by coloured water. At the top of the board was a large tank called the treasury. Water (representing money) flowed from the treasury to other tanks representing the various ways in which a country could spend its money. For example, there were tanks for health and education. To increase spending on health care a tap could be opened to drain water from the treasury to the tank which represented health spending. Water then ran further down the model to other tanks, representing other interactions in the economy. Water could be pumped back to the treasury from some of the tanks to represent taxation. Changes in tax rates were modeled by increasing or decreasing pumping speeds.”

Here is a link to a demo of the Phillips Machine in action, by Allan McRobie of Cambridge University.

Even More ‘Abramisms’ by Beston Jack Abrams

“There is a Jewish tradition called ‘Tikkun Olum’, a concept that each of us is obliged to contribute to alleviating as best we can the difficulties of our world,” Beston Jack Abrams writes in his latest volume of “Abramisms”. “These short expressions, I hope, deserve to be called ‘aphorisms’ [a venerable literary form], and will serve in a small way to discharge my obligation.” Mr. Abrams has discharged his obligation twice before on this blog, in 2007 and in 2011. Here is another dose of his Abramic wisdom…

Proposals to change the status quo rarely come from those in power.

Old age: gratitude for the good fortune to have achieved it is more becoming than the use of disguises to hide it.

If we don’t accept reality today, it will not disappear but will return tomorrow as myth and legend.

There is a tendency to elevate to a ‘right’ something we simply want to do.

If passions are subject to facts we are more secure than if facts are subject to passions.

Education is not symmetrical; it has a beginning but no end.

Listening is a most powerful when unimpeded by our own thoughts.

Grace is to win without bragging; lose without excuse; live without complaint and share without regret.

Even More Aphorisms by Marty Rubin

I’ve blogged about Marty Rubin’s aphorisms twice before, in 2009 and in 2011. Marty needs no introduction to regular readers of this blog, so I’ll let his sayings speak for themselves. For more of Marty’s musings, check out his blog: Out Of Context: Pieces of a Life.

Unless you’re walking your thoughts will get you nowhere.

Information is what you put in empty heads to keep them empty.

If you want to set your life in order, consider it already done.

What does introspection mean? It means you’re looking in the wrong direction.

Being awake is no different than sleeping if all you do is dream.

Digging, one finds more rocks than gold.

The sea is captive in a drop of water.

More Aphorisms by Gregory Norminton

I first blogged about Gregory Norminton’s aphorisms back in 2010. In September, he publishes The Lost Art of Losing, in the preface to which he writes of the aphorism: “Other forms possess, like Claudette Colbert showing her leg in It Happened One Night, assets worth slowing down for: the absorption of narrative, the imprint of facts. The aphorism, exposing its slender thumb to traffic, has little to recommend it save brevity and concision. But these are qualities with cachet, too often absent from baggy novels or hackneyed journalism.” Norminton’s aphorisms are worth slowing down for; in fact, you might want to just park the car and walk the long way home. More info is to be had on Norminton’s website and How to be Awake.

Prone to sudden enthusiasms, I leave the main work undone. The pursuit of novelty is the evasion of effort.

The truth may set you free but it’s cold outside.

Perhaps thunder is the sound of God slapping His forehead in pure disbelief.

The skeptic’s burden is always lighter.

A question mark is an exclamation mark that stoops to inspect itself.

The past is a work in progress.

Some things must be seen through to be seen.

The shallowest minds go off the deep end.

What we think we understand of science is really only its metaphors.

The tragedy of sleep is that we cannot be awake to appreciate it.

The body has wits that the conscious mind lacks. Pure intellect can’t dance.

Aphorisms by Atanas Krlevski

Atanas Krlevski is a Macedonian aphorist and telecommunication engineer who has been writing aphorisms since 1977. His satirical sayings regularly appear in Macedonian magazines and on radio and television as well as in the anthology of Balkan aphorisms compiled by Vasil Tolevski. Krlevski’s books of aphorisms are Krlevizmi (2009) and Okrlaveni misli (2011).

His rent is expensive; he lives inside his head.

When I’m drunk, people are two-faced.

During elections, the only truths are false promises.

Before politicians can fly, they have to crawl.

I feel sorry for my wallet; it leads an empty life.

My sex life is like a boring play: I fall asleep right after the first act.

Aphorisms by Nicolás Gómez Dávila

The preternaturally aphoristically alert Dave Lull directs me to this post on the similarities between the aphorisms of poet-critic J.V. Cunningham (1911-1985) and Colombian aphorist Nicolás Gómez Dávila (1913-1994) on Anecdotal Evidence, a blog by Patrick Kurp. I don’t know Cunningham’s work, but I do admire his aphoristic insight into the craft of writing:

The writer seeks the unique in the common language.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila features in Geary’s Guide (pp. 331-332). He called his aphorisms escolios, or ‘glosses.’ He is among Colombia’s most controversial scholars, despite the fact that he never held a university post or made the slightest effort to publicize his work. He spent most of his time reading, in a private library that reportedly contained more than 30,000 volumes. Gómez Dávila described himself as a “reactionary”; he criticized both democracy and socialism, attacked liberalism in all its forms, and deplored the reform of the Catholic Church instituted by the Second Vatican Council. More of his sayings can be found here. Some aphorisms:

The one who renounces seems weak to the one incapable of renunciation.

To think like our contemporaries is a recipe for prosperity and stupidity.

In an age in which the media broadcast countless pieces of foolishness, the educated man is defined not by what he knows, but by what he doesn’t know.

The punishment of the idealist consists in the triumph of his cause.

Confused ideas and muddy ponds appear deep.

Nowadays public opinion is not the sum of private opinions. On the contrary, private opinions are an echo of public opinion.

The stupidity of an old man imagines itself to be wisdom; that of an adult, experience; that of a youth, genius.

More on Susan Sontag on Aphorisms

Dave Lull spotted the Maverick Philosopher‘s musings on the very same passages about aphorisms from Susan Sontag’s diaries. The Maverick Philosopher has his own issues with Sontag’s take on aphorisms, but agrees with her that an aphorism is not an argument. “An aphorism that states its reasons is no aphorism at all,” he writes. “But the reasons are there, though submerged, like the iceberg whose tip alone is visible. An aphorism, then, is the tip of an iceberg of thought.” So, naturally, he takes issue with my argument that aphorisms are arguments (“An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though,” I wrote. “It’s up to you, the reader, to supply the other side…”), writing: “It appears that Geary is confusing a statement with an argument. Consider Nietzsche’s ‘Some men are born posthumously.’ This is a declarative sentence but certainly no argument. An argument requires at least one premise and a conclusion. To argue is to support a claim with reasons. Nothing like this is going on in the one-sentence aphorism just quoted.” I don’t wish to be argumentative (I am, Sontag would surely say, too well-bred for that) so suffice it to say that the submerged arguments lurking beneath the tips of those icebergs of thought are the very things on which so many philosophers founder.

Aphorisms by Aaron Haspel

Thanks to the efforts of the hyper-actively aphoristically alert Dave Lull I know that Aaron Haspel ‏(@ahaspel) has written a book of aphorisms. I know it’s called Everything and that it, according to Haspel, “will be forthcoming when I persuade someone to come forth with it.” I also know that it is extremely good.

“This book began with the recognition that I was the sort of writer, or at least wanted to do the sort of writing, best tolerated a sentence or two at a time,” Haspel writes in the introduction. He then goes on to describe an approach to aphorisms—reading, writing, living them—with which I wholeheartedly agree: “To provide the instructions is also to act. Aphorisms are often derided as trivial, yet most people rule their lives with four or five of them.”

Everything is filled with Haspel’s wry, wise rules. And they are so good, I couldn’t limit myself to four or five of them…

One reads so as not to believe everything one reads.

In hell you are forced to reread continuously all the books you loved before you were twenty.

It takes half a lifetime to learn to read slowly.

You stir up a lot of sunken knowledge when you reorganize your library.

Infinitely more is lost in translation from thought to page than from one language to another.

The serial disciple is often mistaken for an independent thinker.

People say they can’t draw when they mean they can’t see, and that they can’t write when they mean they can’t think.

Untested beliefs are the most firmly held.

The last heresy is orthodoxy.

Where some has failed, more rarely succeeds.

The more you regard your life as a story the more you edit it.

Jobs are like jail, except with time added for good behavior.

The most interesting things to do are the dullest to watch.

To regard oneself as the exception is the rule.

Inopportunity is always knocking.

Whatever you have done, you are the sort of person who would do that.

What can be done can usually be undone, but at considerable expense.

Aphorisms by Mikhail Turovsky

The hyper-aphoristically alert Dave Lull once again lulls me into a true sense of complicity with this review of an exhibition of the work of Ukrainian-born artist Mikhail Turovsky, in Books & Culture, A Christian Review. Turovsky is an aphorist and painter. His book Itch of Wisdom was published in Ukranian in 1984 and translated into English in 1986. Here is Itch of Wisdom in Ukranian.

In the Books & Culture review, the author, Alissa Wilkinson, writes: “Neither aphorisms nor small works on paper are meant to be full-sized expositions of a complex theme. They are breaths, quotations, thoughts, and—on the surface—less complex than a complete work. Yet there is something about a small work—a drawing on paper or an aphorism—that makes us stop and think about it. It requires its audience to take it slowly, to chew and digest. What it says on its surface is only the beginning. So when Turovsky writes,

Broken wings fit more easily in standard-size boxes

I cannot quickly pass on. I require a moment to mentally conjure the image, then understand what it really means. ” Wilkinson is on to something here, how the brevity of aphorisms forces us to slow down and think rather than gloss quickly over and move on, a point I was trying to make in my post explaining why I disagree with Susan Sontag’s opinion of aphorisms.

I have been unable to locate a copy of Itch of Wisdom in English, but Turovsky’s Wikipedia page contains a tantalizing sampling of his aphorisms. His paintings can be seen on his personal website.

The first ape who became a man thus committed treason against his own kind.

Man is afraid of prison although he himself consists of cells.

When your legs get weaker time starts running faster.

Death is so preoccupied with life, that is has no time for anything else.

If you have got a fulcrum, there is no need to turn over the world.

The longer a dead-end, the more it looks like a road.

Susan Sontag on Aphorisms

The ever aphoristically alert Dave Lull directs me to a recent post on Maria Popova’s excellent Brain Pickings site with extracts from Susan Sontag’s newly released volume of diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. Popova highlights an entry dated April 26, 1980, in which Sontag, Popova writes, “offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking.” I reproduce the extract below and explain why Sontag’s—and Popova’s—understanding of aphorisms is wrong.

“Aphorisms are rogue ideas. Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.”

First, aphorisms are not “the ultimate soundbitification of thinking.” Soundbites are, in fact, not aphorisms at all; they are wispy slogans, empty sententious suits, Kraft’s Velveeta to the real cheese of aphorisms. A soundbite is just something somebody said. Aphorisms have a verbal facility and philosophical depth soundbites seek to avoid, because soundbites are designed to evade critical thinking while aphorisms are designed to elicit it. The soundbite misses the all-important Fourth Law of the Aphorism: It must be philosophical. For more thoughts on the difference between aphorisms and other forms of short sayings, see the Frequently Unasked Questions (FUQs) page on my website.


Aphorisms are indeed “rogue ideas” but they are not “aristocratic thinking.” Aphorisms are, in fact, the oldest and most democratic form of written literature on the planet and the only form of oral literature still practiced in every country and every culture around the world. Proverbs are distinguished from aphorisms only by the fact that aphorisms still have identifiable authors, while the identities of proverbial authors have been worn away by centuries of use. Everybody still uses proverbs all the time; just pay close attention to ordinary conversation, whether oral or written, and you’ll find proverbs embedded everywhere. The ‘aristocratic’ stigma adhered to aphorisms in the 17th and 18th centuries, when actual aristocrats like La Rochefoucauld started using the form. But these sophisticated thinkers were building on a tradition of aphoristic thinking and writing that predated them by millennia, a form of thinking and writing deeply rooted in quotidian, collective wisdom. The American aphoristic tradition, in particular, is a gleefully anti-aristocratic one; just read Twain, Bierce, Franklin, Billings, Parker, or Mae West.

Sontag writes “the reader is expected to get [an aphorism] fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument.” While aphorisms do revel in brevity, aphorisms are not drive-thru windows of the soul. An aphorism is the first link in a long chain of thought, a chain of thought that can stretch across a lifetime. The best aphorisms are, in fact, the shortest ones that make you think the longest. Precisely because aphorisms are philosophical and resist the comfy cliches of soundbites, they continue to provoke long after they have first been read. A really good aphorism becomes a fixture of thinking, one that can alter your outlook as it enhances introspection.

And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though. It’s up to you, the reader, to supply the other side—which is why aphorisms are a ‘lean forward’ reading experience and soundbites are a ‘lean back’ reading experience.

Popova also quotes an entry from May 6, only part of which I reproduce below:

“… Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics? … Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard.”

Sontag correctly notes that aphorisms tend toward pessimism, but I would argue that aphoristic pessimism is a kind of inverted optimism. Aphorists do tend to see the dark side of things, but they see it and say it with a humor, insight and ebullience that is inspirational. In this respect, aphorisms are like vaccinations: They introduce a bit of the disease into your system so that you are better able to resist it when you encounter it full force later. Aphorists are realists, another characteristic that distinguishes them from purveyors of nostrums, platitudes and soundbites.

Finally, aphoristic thinking is not “impatient thinking.” I’m still thinking about the very first aphorism I ever read, in a copy of Reader’s Digest when I was eight year old:

The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

And as far as composition is concerned, what Yeats writes of composing poems applies to aphorisms, too:

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been for nought

If you don’t believe me, try writing an aphorism. You will learn—very quickly—just how patient you must be.