Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Metaphors Fly Like Bad Analogies

Washington and Wall Street are trying to sell a $700 billion financial-markets rescue package to a skeptical public, and, amid popping bubbles and golden parachutes, the metaphors and similes are taking wing.

Politics and finance always favor cliches and stock phrases to straight talk, but this crisis has opened up the flood gates.

"Unfortunately, the economy, it's a little like a bathtub," billionaire investor Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, told CNBC this week, explaining why the average American suffers when investment banks collapse. "You can't have cold water in the front and hot water in the back."

That makes it pretty clear. Buffett speaks plainly.

On the Senate floor Friday, Mr. Schumer took the image from prognosis to prescription. "We must come together and work in a bipartisan way to unclog those arteries...and we must do it soon," he said. But the medicine was tainted, he said, by Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, who suspended his campaign briefly, rushed to Washington, "put another fly in the ointment and created more trouble."

He urged the Arizona senator to "leave town and not throw fire on these flames."

Throw fire on these flames? Say what, Chuck? Put a fly in the ointment? My Lord!

Why the rush to deploy metaphor to describe the Wall Street crisis? "Because nobody can understand it," says John D. Casnig, founder of the Metaphor Observatory, a Web site for fans of figurative language.

Those who understand can't speak plainly; most people seem to yearn for simple images.

With the experts talking credit-default swaps, rate resets, cram-down bankruptcies and exchange-stabilization funds, who wouldn't swoon with visions of derivatives dancing in their heads? "Metaphor is used when we can't understand something in its own context," says Mr. Casnig, who last year declared "mortgage meltdown" the third-most-popular metaphor of 2007, two spots behind the "troop surge" and just shy of "perfect storm."

One of Mr. Casnig's financial favorites comes from John Oliver, on the TV news parody "The Daily Show," who says that searching for another way for leaders to mess up the economy is "like finding a vein on a failure junkie."

After all, "credit is the lifeblood of the economy," Mr. Bernanke noted.

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