I sometimes wish there were a way to ban metaphors from politics. When they’re not just stupidly unhelpful — I still don’t know what “skin in the game” means — they’re designed to cut off debates. (I almost said “short-circuit debates.”) Maybe there’s an argument to be made that Trump’s budget needlessly cuts federal aid programs. I have my doubts, since (a) the country is $20 trillion in debt precisely because any cut to any program, or indeed any reduction in any program’s rate of growth, is characterized as a heartless slash of a vital government service, even when the service in question shows few marks of success over the decades; and (b) if we’re not going to do anything about Social Security and Medicare, then something’s got to give. In any case, I’m instantly resistant to anyone who calls these programs a “safety net.” What kind of monster would want a safety net removed? Or reduced in size?
I’m not opposed to metaphors qua metaphors. The language can’t do much without them. But in our screen-dominated, post-literary culture, we rarely use metaphors deliberately. We simply fill our speech and writing with them, unconsciously. You can’t say something controversial anymore without “igniting a firestorm” or subjecting yourself to an “avalanche of criticism.” Legislation that doesn’t accomplish its stated aim isn’t deficient or negligible; it’s “watered down” or has “no teeth,” even if some of its provisions constitute a “step in the right direction.” People are no longer condemned or exonerated; they’re “thrown under the bus” or “let off the hook.” We hear constantly about “chilling effects” and “hurdles to success” and “political footballs” and “witch hunts” and “level playing fields” and “feeding frenzies.”
Political debates often revolve around metaphors, and often very few people who use them bother to explain what the metaphors mean or what they correspond to in the literal world. I recall the debate about “starving the beast,” the sadly mistaken theory that tax cuts alone could shrink the size of government by “starving” it of revenue. It sounded right — you could almost see this “beast” withering away for lack of nutriment. But it was just another dumb metaphor.
Later there was the accusation, around about 2006, that the George W. Bush administration had “cherry-picked” intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. More recently, fiscal policies that avoid dealing with entitlement spending — or any policies thought to delay addressing urgent problems — are said to “kick the can down the road.” More recently still, we wonder whether Trump will “drain the swamp.”
Trump was roundly ridiculed recently when he seemed to suggest, in an interview with the Economist, that he invented the phrase “priming the pump.” That’s the economic theory that governments can stimulate growth by injecting the economy with cash, just as one inserts a little water into a water pump to get it pumping. “Have you heard that expression used before?” Trump asked his interviewer. “Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good.”
Sure, it’s pretty ridiculous that Trump thought he coined this phrase, which, as thousands of commentators instantly pointed out, has been commonplace for a century or more. But at least he knew it was a metaphor, an “expression.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard government officials and sophisticated economists use the phrase, apparently without any awareness that it’s a metaphor. In the literal world of economic policymaking, there is no “pump” you can “prime”; there is only revenue you can squander in the belief — the erroneous belief, in my view — that it will somehow invigorate economic activity.
Now — on the question of whether and to what degree Trump’s proposal really balances the budget on the backs of the poor …
Oh, never mind.