Metaphor and Economics

On the Poetry website, Stephen T. Ziliak, a professor of economics at the Roosevelt University and author of The Cult of Statistical Significance, writes in “Haiku Economics: Money, metaphor, and the invisible hand“: “Perhaps it’s the economists who can learn the most from poets about precision and efficiency, about objectivity and maximization—the virtues, in other words, of value-free science.” The essay is about how the emotions and moral sentiments informed much of early economic theorizing, until these were replaced by the strictly rational and utilitarian. Now we’re seeing that trend reversed: the ‘rational actor’ theory of economics is being replaced by behavioral finance, which explores how feelings and irrational motivations prompt our financial decisions. Ziliak quotes the poet Etheridge Knight: “Generally speaking, a people’s metaphors and figures of speech will come out of their basic economy … If somebody lives near the ocean and they fish, their language will be full of those metaphors. If people are farmers, they will use that kind of figure of speech. Metaphors are alive. When they come into being, they are informed by the politics and the sociology and the economy of now. That’s how language is.”

Flick on the business news and you’re in for a smorgasbord of financial metaphors. Gasp in horror as the bear market grips Wall Street in its hairy paws; then cheer as fearless investors claw back gains. Watch in amazement as the NASDAQ vaults to new heights; then cringe as it slips, stumbles, and drops like a stone. Wait anxiously to see if the market will shake off the jitters, slump into depression, or bounce back. Finance and economics are the ultimate numbers games, yet commentators from Helsinki to Hong kong instinctively use metaphors to describe what’s going on.

These and other examples of the figurative language commonly used in economics (boom, bust, or bubble anyone?) demonstrate that metaphor is at work in this seemingly most stolid of disciplines. According to Deirdre N. McCloskey in The Rhetoric of Economics, “The most important example of economic rhetoric . . . is metaphor. Economists call them ‘models.’ To say that markets can be represented by supply and demand ‘curves’ is no less a metaphor than to say that the west wind is ‘the breath of autumn’s being.’ ”

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Want to know more about metaphor? Check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, out on February 8.