Monday, March 9, 2009

Do you metaphor?

Warren Buffett does. And, he did today. He called our struggling economy an "economic Pearl Harbor."

I'm a big fan of metaphor, and of Warren, especially his writing, but he blew it on this one. While I agree that the economy stinks and that it has "fallen off a cliff," as Warren also added in his interview with CNBC, giving us what might be called an absolute metaphor, we needn't blame the Japanese, or some other sneaky enemy, for this economy.

You may recall, if you have any gray hair at all, that years ago when they were a martial nation, the Japanese attacked American military installations at Pearl Harbor, staging one of the all-time, most successful, military sneak attacks in history, putting much of our navy out of commission. (Had we done it, we'd still be talking about what a great military achievement it was.) Anyway, Warren's Pearl Harbor metaphor doesn't work for me.

What is a metaphor? The word "metaphor" comes to us from the Greek where it means "transfer." Metaphors transfer meaning. They describe a first subject as being similar to a second subject (without using like or as). In so doing, they transfer the meaning of the first subject to the second. For example, when a Shakespearean actor says, "All the world's a stage," he is comparing our everyday activities, our daily strutting and fretting, with the acting that occurs on a stage. If we're honest with ourselves, that metaphor works. We all strut and fret, alternately wearing and discarding masks to suit our immediate needs.

But, is this economy like Pearl Harbor? Not from what I can gather. At its core, Pearl Harbor will always stand for a ruthless sneak attack for which the victims were unprepared. No one sneaked up on us in this fiasco, certainly not a wartime enemy, especially not the Japanese. No, this time we had our heads buried in our fears, our complacency, and our greed. We don't need to rehash the failures of Iraq, General Motors, or the banks of America to prove that statement. But, the secondary parts of the Pearl Harbor metaphor seem to work. Let's look at them.

Pearl Harbor required all Americans to unite behind a government that had identified a common enemy. Pearl Harbor required that all Americans sacrifice personal pleasures and re-tool industry so as to produce the arms of war. Pearl Harbor involved every family in America, rich and poor. Pearl Harbor gave us an opportunity to prove our courage and resiliency. These also fit our current economic circumstances. But, again, they do not inform the central element of the metaphor, the sneak attack.

If Pearl Harbor as a metaphor doesn't fit snugly, what metaphor does? Perhaps Warren hit it better, while mixing metaphors, when he said the economy had "fallen off a cliff." We can't say it was "pushed off a cliff" because then we'd have to blame the the Taliban, or Toyota, or George Bush, or somebody.

No, we best say the economy "fell off a cliff" because we Americans and the people we elected and the people they appointed allowed the economic vehicle to drift driverless down the road for a few years before it dropped precipitously off the cliff. That took years of gradual theft and collusion and ignorance. When the big drop came, Warren is right, it came with the suddenness of a Pearl Harbor. It brought an immediate loss of footing, accompanied by extreme and frightening vertigo, and the painful uncertainty we now suffer.

Yes, Warren was right about the fall. What frightens me is that the car is still falling, we haven't heard the crash yet or watched the fuel erupt into a fireball. Only then can we lower ourselves to the bottom of the ravine to identify the broken, charred, and mangled bodies. Only then can we determine how to re-assemble the car, or trash it. Only then can we begin to rehabilitate the victims. How's that for a metaphor?!

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