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Anat Shenker-Osorio

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Driving Mr. Krugman: How We Talk About the Economy

Posted: 12/14/10 02:15 PM ET

In a world gone wrong, at least we can count on Paul Krugman. The Nobel Laureate eviscerates the convoluted logic behind the proposed economic policy fiasco dressed up as a stimulus plan. He also lays out a critical notion about policy-making: the ways we describe things determines what is "true" about them. It profiles certain information and sends other aspects of an issue to the background, or out of the frame all together.

For example, when we talk about the economy being "unhealthy" or "suffering" we liken it to a body. This isn't just literary license -- it shapes what our audiences think ought to be done. Bodies do very well left to their own devices most of the time. They may require major intervention in crisis but they don't need continuous monitoring and control.

Krugman rightly frowns upon this metaphor. However, he tars another very common simplification -- economy as vehicle -- that deserves better. He condemns the characterization of the tax plan as a "jump-start" to the economy, arguing that this vehicle metaphor is leading us to an economic dead end. But his critique is not actually of seeking a jump-start. Instead, he contends that the tax plan won't get the economy moving very fast nor very far. It's not bad wording, it's poor mechanics that he identifies as the problem here.

In fact, one of the essential characteristics of vehicles is that they have drivers. They do not operate on their own. Ideally, these drivers have training, experience and pay attention. These are the very assumptions we wish people would make about our economy. Namely, that it requires capable, continuous, external control.

The vehicle metaphor is far from perfect. There are other, lesser-used explanatory models that have greater promise for conveying what this thing we call the economy is, how it works, and how we ought to interact with it. Unfortunately, none of the other contenders are widely-used and so to put them into operation we'd need to diligently craft new language from them.

Not surprisingly, Krugman doesn't offer a solution for a better way to talk about and therefore convey assumptions about the economy. It's always easier to notice what's not working than suggest something that would. His economic prescriptions are, as usual, right on. His communication recommendations stop short of his (and our) destination.