Monday, January 24, 2011

Bad metaphors make bad economic policy: Part 2

(Updated below.) 

Remember: If you don't think about language, it will do your thinking for you.

Krugman today argues that the administration's newest buzzword, competitiveness, might be good politics but signals poor economic policy.

Along the way, he neatly disposes of the argument-by-metaphor that America (and, by extension, all large entities, including universities, hospitals, you name it) should be thought of as being like a corporation -- and hence run that way:

But isn’t it at least somewhat useful to think of our nation as if it were America Inc., competing in the global marketplace? No.

Consider: A corporate leader who increases profits by slashing his work force is thought to be successful. Well, that’s more or less what has happened in America recently: employment is way down, but profits are hitting new records. Who, exactly, considers this economic success?

Well, actually, to defeat the purpose of a rhetorical question by answering it, the tiny sliver of the population making out like bandits off those profits think it's really pretty amazingly great. Which ought to tell us a lot about who's got the most invested in this lame metaphor.

(Part 1 of "Bad metaphors make bad economic policy" is here.)

Update: Robert Reich says pretty much the same thing about "competitiveness" (emphasis added):

Word has it that the President will be emphasizing “improving American competitiveness” in his State of the Union Address Tuesday night. As I’ve noted, the term is meaningless — but it’s politically useful. CEOs and many conservatives think it means improving the profitability of American companies. Liberals and labor unions think it means increasing export jobs.

Neither touches at the heart of the matter.

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