Sorry it has been so long since my last post. I have been busy with work projects, home repairs and family events. I have also had several technical problems with the blog. I almost had it shut down twice because of bugs and “exceeding my inode usage.” WTH!? But, I am back on track, at least for now.
I am writing to share a brilliant article by Steven Brill in a recent Time magazine called “How My Generation Broke America,” an excerpt from his new book, Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall, and Those Fighting to Reverse It.
You can read the article in print by Steven Brill, “How My Generation Broke America” inTime, May 28, 2018, pp. 32 – 39. You can also find it online here under the slightly different title, “How Baby Boomers Broke America.”
Not only is it a very insightful article about the rise of inequality in the United States in the last few decades, it is also chock-full of colorful metaphors. For example, in one section, he is describing how the most affluent people in the country were trying to become even more wealthy, “…they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and coopt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladderso more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.” “By continuing to get better at what they do, knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineeringchanges in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moatsthat protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community” [italics added].
Wow! My head is spinning from the wild combination of metaphors. Of course, as readers of this blog well know, we speak in this fashion all the time without even thinking about it.
Allow me to unpack these metaphors and a few others to try to make send of it all. As usual, the quotations are all directly from the article. I have added italics to highlight the metaphors.
animals and insects
We commonly create metaphors based on our experiences with insects and animals. Two metaphors of horses are represented here, that of a gallopinghorse or using reinsto stop a horse. Metaphorically, something that is gallopingis moving at a fast pace, usually with the sense that the horse or the situation is a bit out of control. Having to rein something inalso indicates that the problem is dangerous and needs to be controlled. A final example from the insect world compares the hundreds of lobbyists in Washington DC to a swarmof bees.
Example: “How did the world’s greatest democracy and economy become a land of crumbling roads, gallopingincome inequality, bitter polarization and dysfunctional government?”
rein them in
Example: “Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reinedthem in, and pull up the ladders so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.”
Example: “Indeed, money has come to dominate everything so completely that the people we send to D.C. to represent us have been reduced to begging on the phone for campaign cash up to five hours a day and spending their evenings taking checks at fundraisers organized by those swarminglobbyists.”
Metaphors based on machines are commonly created because of our experiences with automobiles, household appliances or power tools. Here we find examples of the engineof a vehicle being compared to the processes that stimulate the economy. Similarly, when the engineis not working well, it may sputteras it struggles to find the right gas and air mixture. Metaphorically, a sputtering engineindicates a process that is not working correctly. Also, machines must be designed or engineeredby someone. Thus, we can speak metaphorically about a process or economic system that is engineeredby politicians.
Example: “Ingenious financial and legal engineeringturned our economy from an engineof long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casino with only a few big winners.”
engine is sputtering
Example: “Meanwhile, the celebrated American economic-mobility engine is sputtering.”
Example: “By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineeringchanges in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moats that protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community.”
We often create metaphors based on our experiences with using the strength of our own bodies to move objects. Here we find examples of bringing down,undercutting, squeezing, blocking, pushing aside, pushing back, breakingorcrashingsomething. In each case we see that an abstract process is compared to a physical action. In another common metaphor, we talk about riggingsomething. The original meaning is derived from the process of tying ropes to sails on a ship. A subsequent meaning implied that the riggingwas some sort of trick that could be played on someone. The metaphor of riggingis commonly used in politics to indicate an unfair system or process.
bring America down
Example: “About five decades ago, the core values that make America great began to bring America down.”
Example: “Election reforms meant to enhance democracy wound up undercuttingdemocracy.”
squeezing out every penny
Example: “Most Americans with average incomes have been left to fend for themselves, often at jobs where automation, outsourcing, the decline of union protection and the boss’s obsession with squeezing out every pennyof short-term profit have eroded any sense of security.”
Example: “America’s rightly celebrated dedication to due process was used as an instrument to blockgovernment from enforcing job-safety rules, holding corporate criminals accountable and otherwise protecting the unprotected.”
Example: “For them, the new, brokenAmerica works fine, at least in the short term.”
crashed the economy
Example: “There may be no more flagrant example of the achievers’ triumph than how they were able to avoid accountability when the banks they ran crashedthe economy.”
push aside, pushback
Example: “Thus, the breakdown came when their intelligence, daring, creativity and resources enabled them to push asideany effort to rein them in. They did what comes naturally – they kept winning. And they did it with the protection of an alluring, defensible narrative that shielded them from pushback, at least initially.”
Example: “A gerrymandering process has riggedeasy wins for most of them, as long as they fend off primary challengers…”
There is a single, extraordinary example of a journey metaphor that I have never heard before. Metaphors of traveling are very common in political speeches but less common in articles and books. In this case, Brill describes the process of the wealthy making decisions as a comparison to driving along a dangerous road without guardrails.
knocking away the guardrails
Example: “By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineering changes in the political landscape, and by dint of the often unanticipated consequences of their innovations, they created a nation of moats…”
Metaphors of cars, ships and airplanes are also very common in descriptions of American politics. In this article, Brill uses several colorful examples. The title of his new book, Tailspin, is an example from aviation in which an out-of-control plane spins downward to a horrible crash. Metaphorically, to say something is in a tailspinindicates that it is about to crash. In some cases, the crew of a crashing plane can eject or bail outfrom the plane before it crashes. The phrase bail outcan be used to describe the process when people get out of situation before it totally falls apart. Finally, a phrase from the early days of jet airplanes is used here as well. Test pilots who flew planes at maximum speeds to test new jets in the 1950s were said to be pushing the envelope. Metaphorically, to push the envelopemeans that people are trying new and dangerous ways of doing something.
Example: “The story of America’s tailspinis not about villains, though there are some.”
Example: “The recovery from the crash of 2008 – which saw banks and bankers bailed outwhile millions lost their homes, savings and jobs – was reserved almost exclusively for the wealthiest.”
push the envelope
Example: “As the financial engineers continued to push the envelopewith ever-riskier versions of the original invention, they crashed the economy.”
Military metaphors are very common in political campaigns as candidates battle against each other to win an elected office. They also appear occasionally in other writings about politics. There are a few choice examples here including the usual metaphors of battlesand battalions. There is also an example of a shieldmetaphor. Of course, shieldswere wooden or metal objects used to ward off weapon attacks during battles. Metaphorically, we use the term shieldto indicate any process of warding off verbal or procedural attacks in modern politics. Another interesting metaphor commonly used by Brill to describe the protected wealthy class is being entrenched. The word trenchoriginally meant a ditch built in a battlefield to protect the soldiers from bullets or bombs from enemies across from them, as in the famous trenchesof World War I. Being entrenchedmeant that you were in a trenchand safe from harm. Metaphorically, people being entrenchedare safe in their political or social positions. Here, Brill implies that the privileged few are safe from attacks from the public or politicians; in fact he refers to them as the entrenched meritocracyor the entrenched aristocracy.
Example: “In a battlethat began a half-century ago, the achievers won.”
Example: “Regulatory agencies were overwhelmed by battalionsof lawyers who brilliantly weaponizedthe bedrock American value of due process so that, for example, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule protecting workers from a deadly chemical could be challenged and delayed for more than a decade and end up being hundreds of pages long.”
Example: “Thus, the breakdown came when their intelligence, daring, creativity and resources enabled them to push aside any effort to rein them in. They did what comes naturally – they kept winning. And they did it with the protection of an alluring, defensible narrative that shieldedthem from pushback, at least initially.”
Example: “Daniel Markovits, who specializes in the intersection of law and behavioral economics, told the class of 2015 that their success getting accepted into, and getting a degree from, the country’s most selective law school actually marked their entry into a newly entrenchedaristocracy that had been snuffing out the American Dream for almost everyone else.”
There are also a few metaphors from the business world. Brill likens the financial gains of the privileged class as winningsfrom a lottery or a casino. He directly refers to their gaming of the economic system as a casino. More pointedly, he also refers to the process of the wealthy people as putting their thumb on the scales. This phrase refers to the old trick of a store clerk secretly pressing down on a scale while measuring the weight of meat, flour, sugar or other items, thus increasing its weight and price. Here Brill claims that the protected class is putting their thumbs on the scale of democracy.
Example: “It’s the protected vs. the unprotected, the common good vs. maximizing and protecting the elite winners’ winnings.”
Example: “Ingenious financial and legal engineering turned our economy from an engine of long-term growth and shared prosperity into a casinowith only a few big winners.”
put a thumb on the scales
Example: “The First Amendment became a tool for the wealthy to put a thumb on the scalesof democracy.”
Eating food is always a rich source of metaphors. Here we find two interesting examples. Brill compares the protected class grabbing the vast majority of the wealth in this country for the past several decades to gluttonsas if they are eating vast quantities of food. In a rather unusual metaphor that I have not seen before, Brill also compares the immediate profit-gaining Wall Street trades to getting a sugar high. As we know, eating a large amount of sugar may feel good for a while, but then when the sugar wears off, the person will feel very sick. Similarly, a short-term profit may be good for some investors but may have serious consequences later.
Example: “It may be understandable for those on the losing side of this triumph of the achievers to condemn the winners as gluttons.”
Example: “They created exotic, and risky, financial instruments, including derivatives and credit default swaps, that produced sugar highsof immediate profits but separated those taking the risk from those who would bear the consequences.”
The English language contains many metaphors based on our experiences with buildings and the lands surrounding them. In another extraordinary metaphor, Brill compares the wealthy protecting their earnings to medieval kings who built moatsaround their castles to protect them from attack. He also uses a more modern sense of changing the political landscapein the same way that people change the landscapingaround their homes.
In yet another unusual metaphor, he talks about the wealthy pulling up the ladder. This action has several different origins. I first heard this expression many years ago in my anthropology classes. Native American peoples of the American Southwest often built homes into the sides of cliffs. Some of the entrances were so high, they could only be reached by ladder. In cases of attacks by other tribes, they could pull up the ladderso that no one could reach their homes. There are also uses of this phrase from ships and planes. In the case where large ships could not anchor close to shore, sailors (or pirates?) had to paddle out to the ship on small boats. When they reached the ship they had to climb a ladder to get on board. The last person to get on the ship pulled up the laddersince it was no longer needed. During World War II, some of the large bombers also had doorways into the planes that could only be reached by climbing up a ladder. Similarly, the last person to board the planepulled up the ladderbehind him. Metaphorically, the phrase has a sinister sense, perhaps from the ship situation, in which pulling up the laddermeant that no one else could come aboard, thereby stranding other people or leaving them behind. Thus, pulling up the ladderindeed means leaving people behind who are not able to enjoy what other people have achieved.
Finally, another phrase of laying the groundworkhas its origins in planning a building excavation. Metaphorically, it indicates the start of a new process or procedure. Here Brill suggests that there is some hope in the country getting back on track and ending the mass inequality that exists in the United States today.
Example: “…they created a nation of moats that protected them from accountability and from the damage their triumphs caused in the larger community.”
Example: “By continuing to get better at what they do, by knocking away the guardrails limiting their winnings, aggressively engineering changes in the political landscape.”
pulled up the ladder
Example: “Then, in a way unprecedented in history, they were able to consolidate their winnings, outsmart and co-opt the forces that might have reined them in, and pull up the ladder so more could not share in their success or challenge their primacy.”
laying the groundwork
Example: “They are laying the groundworkfor the feeling of disgust to be channeled into a restoration.”
This article by Steven Brill illustrates how many colorful metaphors can help describe and explain complex political situations. Although the state of the union is pretty scary given the vast amount of income inequality in the United States today, I share the hope of the author that perhaps the American people can fight back and take the thumb off the scales of democracy.
gallop, rein, swarm, engine, sputtering engine, engineer, bring America down, undercut democracy, squeeze, block, broken America, crashed economy, push aside, pushback, rigged, knock away guardrails, tailspin, bail out, push the envelope, battle, battalions, weaponize, shield, entrenched, winnings, casino, put a thumb on the scales, glutton, sugar high, moat, landscape, pull up the ladder, lay the groundwork