The Use of Metaphor in the Irish Economy, A Guest Post by Gavin Kostick

John Donne is remembered on the blog by the phrase, “no man is an island” indicating, a good deal before Adam Smith, the interconnectedness of our lives. Donne (1572 – 1631) was the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, and a metaphysical poet. He specialized in drawing unexpected comparisons between a theoretical, spiritual or abstract notion and a concrete, palpable object. For example, Donne compared mutual love to a pair of mapping compasses, which, where-ever the points are placed on the surface of the world, lean towards each other and are connected.

The history of language itself is the history of the movement from the concrete to the abstract. Our ancestors had a far larger vocabulary than we do, as they were more particular than general.

The power of metaphor consists in making the abstract once again visceral: philosophy ‘proved upon our pulses’, in Keats’s phrase.

But it is a suspect power as it may not so much illuminate, as rhetorically persuade, or falsify.

The history of political and economic thinking is filled with metaphoric physicalisation of abstract ideas – from Hobbes’s “war of all against all”, Smith’s “invisible hand”, Marx’s “spectre haunting Europe”, right up to Matt Taibbi’s “great vampire squid”, powerful gut images have managed to consolidate a set of ideas, capture the public imagination, frame debate.

Rarely a thread of the blog goes by without some arresting image. The following is necessarily a swift and limited survey of some of the kinds of imagery used during the Irish economic crisis so far, followed by some thoughts towards a fresh set of images that might be explored.

Some images have become so commonplace and persuasive that I suspect many readers half forget they are metaphors: ‘kicking the can’, ‘the bubble’, ‘contagion’ being a prime examples. The reason to remind ourselves that these are metaphorical is that they may not necessarily provide an accurate portrayal of the situation. The palpable can overwhelm the concept. It is hard to say, ‘the risk of contagion is low’, without the sound of leper bells once again ringing out across Europe in our ears. Many, I think, thought that as ‘bubbles burst’, house prices would pop. It’s more of a seemingly endless slow puncture.

So far the most successful single allusion in print, is Morgan Kelly’s “we can only rely on the kindness of strangers”. This picks up the final line of Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, as she agrees to agree to being taken off to an asylum when force is in the air. It is an unusual metaphor as it works backwards from the abstract to the concrete. It euphemistically refers to the fact that in order to survive Blanche has been active as a prostitute – a profession which she would never publically acknowledge, and thus the ‘kindness of strangers’ is something she and her Johns both must misrepresent if they wish protect their self-image. It covers over the brutal transactional truth of what is going on. Kelly’s allusion suggests that Ireland must put out for a kindness that is really self-serving – but no one can say this out loud.

Sexual imagery and anxiety runs through the discussion of the Irish economy. In particular the heterosexual fear of male rape – being shafted. See the cartoon by Steve Bell (link here). The male victim is feminized and/or emasculated, while the perpetrator is perversely seen as more male – as playwright Tony Kushner has his fictional version of the real Roy Cohn say: “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual. Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys”.

From the blog here’s the Dork of Cork: “the passive submissive nature of the New Irish eunuch”, and here’s Brian Woods Snr quoting Schmoller: “Statesmen of a lower order also talk with eunuchs’ voices of the inability of the state to interfere anywhere: they mistake their own impotency for that of the state”. There is any amount of the use of the word “castration”. The link between the loss of economic sovereignty and the loss of virility is explicit.

Shay Begorragh skewered the more complex Sado-Monetarist relationship, with: “Please market – discipline me. No, more efficiently! Harder! There will be have to be sacrifices made, particularly by people with no capital. More pain! Dress like Angela Merkel in bondage gear! Scrooge me!”

‘The Economist’ has run with the half-admiring cover, ‘Silvio Berlusconi: The man who screwed an entire country.’ At a level at which men see themselves as very powerful, there is a cross-over from the imagery of such behaviour to its actual enaction. Perhaps Christiane Legarde’s quip that if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters it wouldn’t have failed so catastrophically should be taken at face value.

Whilst there is a raw power about these images, they rest on a distorted and disturbing view of sexual and gender relations, and as much as they make a graphic case, they are also alienating. More relevantly, if the state is to get out of the economic situation it is in, then a metaphoric language which embodies a victim–perpetrator relationship is a dead end.

A second set of images are drawn from another particularly masculine obsession – war, violence and violent self-harm. There are any amounts of nuclear options, guns to head, hand grenades and so on. As surprising amount of it is directed inwards, with John McHale’s image of Ireland behaving like a man threatening to shoot himself in a crowded room being notable. It was countered by the image of Ireland being more like a man with the pin out of a grenade being prepared to let go – that was seen as more desirable.

It may well be that posters here do actually see the situation as a kind of warfare, but again the underlying testosterone-fuelled anxieties may not be the most fruitful source for an imagery which resolves, rather than inflames, a crisis.

Sport, in its guise as war by another means, particularly the vexed question of who exactly is hurling from the ditch, has also featured strongly.

Looking at particular images: the “twin pillars” of the new Irish banking system has embedded itself in the discourse (I am using the word ‘discourse’ to entertain Paul Quigley). This, I think, is unfortunate as it reminds the listener of the Temple of the Philistines which Samson was able to pull down – the analogy being that our economy will once more collapse should the banks go. Most of the supposedly positive banking metaphors (and actual architecture), try to present this kind of strength and solidity, but currently the newspaper reading public realize that banks are really fragile and volatile institutions, and the more they are presented as ‘robust’ the more the listener suspects that this is bluster. ‘Pillars’ captures exactly the wrong kind of static and low-tensile strength suitable for banks.

The “twin pillars” goes down the same road as “putting a floor” under the housing market. “Putting a floor” is a bad image, not because it is not vivid, but because it misrepresents the underlying reality of the way property prices move. It was used to persuade, not to explain.

Perhaps, for house prices, an image of a flying carpet that goes up when the people on board believe strongly in flying is more accurate.

Similarly with “sharing the pain”: a metaphor that lost its moorings.

Turning to transport, a more successful image for the banks was presented by John McHale here: “I think the analogy of a multi-engine plane is useful for thinking about what stops a run. There is redundancy in the system, but it is better to have all engines working. The main engines are the capital (for loss absorption), the guarantees, and the LOLR. In my view, by far the most important at the moment for deposit attraction and retention is a reliable LOLR.” This sits well with our intuition that because bank crashes, like plane crashes, are catastrophic, it is important to make them over-safe, and seek to make the crashes as few and far between as possible.

An exchange between Hoganmayhew and Brian G on the issue of contagion, used the plane analogy at length, and ended with Hogan saying: ‘Yep. It’s a design flaw, rather than pilot error’. That clarified, in my mind at least, that as much as individuals must take their share of the blame, the whole ‘aviation’ system needs to be revised if there are not to be more disasters.

Much has been made of the ship of state as an image, with not surprisingly the Titanic being a key reference. The deckchairs have never been left idle. My favourite comment suggested that the Irish government was behaving as if, having hit the iceberg once but having failed to sink the ship, it was best to go around and try it again.

DOCM clarifies his euro-centric views by offering repeated versions of “I have used the parallel of a lot of trains arriving in the station simultaneously, one, the Greek, being somewhat out of control.” This is apt, as it was the rise of the train system that underpinned the dominance of continental over maritime powers.

Away from transport, fire and the use of emergency services has also successfully figured, this from Joseph Ryan: “The situation to date has been compared to fire fighting. But is there any evidence that the Fire Department understands the dynamics of the fire or the consequences that deliberately not putting out the fire will have. There is no definitive fire break. Nor is there a will to create one. If anything the strategy has been to let the fire engulf the outlying areas, which it has done. The question is what is next. And who still retains their confidence in the fire department to prevent the very worst. Certainly, I don’t.” This lead to a discussion of whether a rules based system for ‘fire prevention’ is sufficient (don’t play with matches), or an acceptance that fires will always break out, and so an engine racing about the place putting them out is needed.

The Dork of Cork exemplifies his position that central banks are faith based by seeing bankers as a ‘priestly’ class.

In medicine, Kenny’s refusal to administer the economy “a lethal injection” by balancing the books immediately, resonates strongly as it captures an ambiguous relationship to medicine – kill or cure – and more specifically that the ‘cure’ of austerity is harmful and must be taken in small doses. One might agree or disagree with him, but it identifies a clear economic position.

Finally on the little run of successful images, John the Optimist once compared economic forecasts to weather forecasts. This is very insightful, as we can talk meaningfully about climate, empirical data, trends, theoretical debates that can be settled by testing, but because of the very nature of the system, we can’t say if it’s going to rain tomorrow. This struck me as capturing the issue of why members of the public are persistently asking economists ‘why can’t we just say what’s best’ and economists saying, ‘but it’s not that simple’. If the economy really is like the weather, subject to chaos theory, then all the computing power in the world won’t be enough to make absolutely beneficial decisions, even within a clear framework such as social democracy.

The origin of this article was a little exchange between myself and John McHale, in which he put his position as: “What I am groping towards is a way to prise open the window back to the markets.” And to which I objected as follows: “On ‘prising open a window’, I don’t think that’s quite right – too much strain, and people don’t like to buy in to people who are desperate. It smacks of burglary.”

For the sake of this post, let us suppose that a desirable outcome in the current situation is that the Irish sovereign is able to regain market access at a reasonable rate.

It would be helpful if supporting imagery drew on a satisfying mutual conclusion to a period of strife. For example, Spencer’s ‘port after stormy seas’, suggests that the Irish ship of state returning to port after choppy waters is satisfying, and perhaps the image of trading at the docks is useful.

Picking up on gender relations, we could say that Ireland and the markets are now in a period of trial separation, and undergoing counseling. Neither side wants an absolute divorce, but fear it may be so. One previously feckless side is showing how they can balance the house-hold budget, the other yearns for the prior state of harmony to be restored, and promises not to be such a user in the future.

Drawing from nature, the image of the bee-hive from Virgil’s Georgics to Yeats’s “bee-loud glade” has provided a rich imagery for harmonious and industrious societies. It also fits rather well, with the idea of Europe as a landscape, fruitful, but also full of parasites and climate threats. Sudden colony collapse is a problem all over the place, but, as it happens, the Irish bee is particularly robust. The Irish hive is regrouping, and its bees are still coming and going across the landscape. The bees of Europe have to collectively realize that whilst they compete for particular trees and flowers, the interests of the bees as a whole are more vital than one hive over the other. One for the socialists here, as we can look forward to the day when the workers realize that they don’t need a queen in the hive.

Finally, music might provide useful concepts. The poor old Irish harp has been abused and battered and the frame is cracked: but now the rot has been fumigated, the frame is being repaired, the strings are to be restrung and retuned, and soon it will be ready to take back to its place in the European orchestra.

For any of the above to work, the warning must once again be made that the concrete image is only apt if the concepts and actions to which it relates are truthful and accurate. So – rather pedestrianly – the rot, means cleaning out the banks and reforming public institutions, the cracked frame means closing the deficit, restrung and retuned are explicit micro-adjustments and measures to support social cohesion.

For Enda Kenny, a line for the next election, should the country get there in good shape – ‘the Irish harp rings true once more’.

In writing the above I am attempting to show how economic commentators have succeeded and failed in expressing complex or intangible ideas through metaphoric comparisons. The excellent contributions used above show, I hope, the rich and powerful impact of metaphoric language that is expressed on the blog.

23 replies on “The Use of Metaphor in the Irish Economy, A Guest Post by Gavin Kostick”

Ah semiotics. Much maligned, much underused. Words and imagery shape how we respond, even to economic stimulus. The failure of rational response economics is, in part, a failure to understand this.

PS. The Irish honey bee is no more immune to CCD than any other species. Our island status has just delayed its arrival. The last winter was very bad. You may, eh, want to revisit your metaphor…

Great post.
I worry that we can over-intellectualize a little bit, The fact is that the money lending classes are taking our assets and taking our jobs. They are dominating in the social pecking order and making people of real value feel worthless. It is equivalent to the “droit de seigneur”. All men feel that once they struggle to provide materially for their wives or family that they are vulnerable. Women mightn’t understand this but that us how men define themselves.
Odd thing is – this is what pushes them to fight. The world is ready for the Greeks – it can absorb discontent in the land of Plato – is it ready for Islamic discontent meeting western disillusionment?
It’s important not to underestimate the visceral in all of this

@ Gavin

That’s quite a discourse. I like the one about going round to hit the iceberg twice too.

‘If the economy really is like the weather, subject to chaos theory, then all the computing power in the world won’t be enough to make absolutely beneficial decisions, even within a clear framework such as social democracy’

Yes, there are inherent systemic complexities and linkages which defy rational planning, but most of the decisional ‘errors’ are driven by much more mundane matters like conflicts of interest. The economy is a Darwinian process in many respects.

Orthodox economics enjoys the status, and the income, which it does, because it has colluded with private wealth and state power in concealing nasty poltical and institutional realities. That is to say, it has allowed itself to be used as a tool for presenting transfers of wealth from one group to another, as ‘natural’, inevitable processes.

Given the messy outcomes which ensue, a lot of the technical literature has little application, other than to demonstrate mathematical and analytical gymnastics. Meanwhile lobbying and insider activity remain respected and respectable activities, even when breaches of law are involved. While there are many fine ‘independent’ operators, such as Ynes Smith (NY), or Bill Mitchell (Australia), economic institutions are so dependent on corporate support that critiical, ethical voices are muted.

The DoC’s analogy about Ireland serving the predatory appetites of the MNCs is a powerful one. The crisis in property, the banks, the trade unions and the public sector is at least acknowledged as ‘our problem’, but the financial transactions in the ‘furren’ sector are out of bounds to natives. Our elecetd leaders seem to take the beningn view that such matters are best left to those who know these things. That’s touching.

Many Irish professionals have a deep private involvement, of course, but their discourse seems not to extend beyond the walls of the (globally mobile) firm or the local service provider. Academics are not encouraged to look too closely at these arrangements. Money talks, but not in the way everyone else does.

I do recognise that there are over 100k jobs, which are gold dust in these times, plus a good deal of corpo tax. Given our experiences in the other sectors, What worries me is that we will start hearing the facts about transfer pricing just as the MNC investment wave is moving on elsewhere. When it is too late to make a difference.

Confession is another image I like. This is about China but it really reminded me of the continued insistence of the eurowallas on austerity and that everything is fine.

“Anyone who has lived through political campaigns in recent Chinese history knows this much about the confession culture: solving a “problem” has little if anything to do with actual repentance or admission of guilt. So long as the underlying problem remains, no number of “confessions” changes anything. And once the underlying problem is solved, the lack of a confession never stands in the way. During the high tide of the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese scientists, including me, had to hand in confessions every day, and each confession was supposed to show “new” and “deeper” introspection on what we had found wrong in ourselves. One method we used in handling this demand was to spend a half-hour copying what we had written the day before (or maybe the day before that) while simply jumbling the order of the paragraphs. We would copy paragraphs A, B, C, and D but put them in the order C, B, D, A. This was enough to serve as our “new” introspection. We later learned that even the reordering had been unnecessary because the authorities, who were living in their own ruts, were not reading what we wrote anyway.

In short, “confessions” in this culture are formalities. They have more to do with face than with actual negotiations. The confession that Deng Xiaoping presented to Mao Zedong is a famous example. In early 1970, when Deng learned that Mao was considering whether to exonerate him, allowing him to return to power, Deng quickly wrote a “guarantee to Chairman Mao” in which he vowed “never to reverse course.” This letter gave Mao face to do what in any case he was inclined to do.”

Gavin, a powerfully written post.
Although I am a mere blog frequenter, let me say that you may be turning into the blog’s Curator.

Indeed, ‘all the world’s a stage’ and, as you have just evoked, so too is the Irish Economy, and a virtual one at that.

You have the rotating Director’s chair with selected script: each edition hopefully taking shape through the learned improvisation of the regular cast – ‘scholar, student, polemicist, pragmatist, pessimist, comic libertine, and of course, the curious. Frequented by some Cameo performance, with the running Extras, toying with their own take and sometimes requiring redirection.

In the audience are bureaucrats, reporters… and the rest, I imagine, attentive, pensive, hopeful, and entertained at times by the black humour ie. “Venus flytrap eating a spider video” brilliant!

So a metaphor for the blog itself?
‘Waiting for Godot…and the Irish Economy’.


Football phrases also seem to be very popular… ‘level playing field’ and all that… unlike the other scandal in Greece at the moment:

I suppose when austerity bites, one has to look at every opportunity to look after number one.

On me ‘ead son but don’t move those goalposts.

“It may well be that posters here do actually see the situation as a kind of warfare, but again the underlying testosterone-fuelled anxieties may not be the most fruitful source for an imagery which resolves, rather than inflames, a crisis.”

Like Barry Eichengreen, I think the situation is more like the imposition of reparations on a defeated state. So Keynes’s denunciation of the Versailles Treaty naturally comes to mind. The question is how to respond? As Keynes’s critics pointed out, Germany imposed a heavy reparations burden on France after the 1870 war. The French simply knuckled down and paid it off showing that, even under the gold standard, it could be done. Arguably that’s Ireland’s best course. If we want our sovereignty back from the pawnshop (another useful metaphor) then we must scrimp and save until we can redeem it. The alternative is to smash the pawnshop window and take it back. Aside from any moral scruples we may have, that’s a risky course.

I don’t think the imagery of conflict is inappropriate. But the metaphor that comes to mind most frequently is that of a chess game and one adage in particular: in a bad position all the moves look bad, even the best.

@ Gavin

I read it all the way through to the end hoping for a sign of entering calmer waters.

PS. To my horror you omitted the “haircut”. Maybe you are saving that one for your next post. The big boys make profits all right but they don’t do losses, just haircuts!

Many thanks for the replies.

I tried to keep it short, but I missed a lot.

“haircut”, “burning bondholders”, “magic beans”, various games, including a lot of poker.

@ paul quigley

Have you (or the Dork if he’s reading), come across “Wynnere and Wastoure” (Winner and Waster), a 14th century alliterative poem discussing the vexed issue of who are the wealth creators and who the wealth destroyers? First economic poem I know. (modern translation)

@ Jill

Thanks very much! I’m just a bloke who makes posts though. If I get too carried away I’ll just mess up.

An excellent post Gavin.

I like the idea of changing our metaphors in order to change our understanding of what is to be done.

One suggestion: if any politician wants to use metaphors that will connect with the Irish people and inspire us about the future then I would recommend farming metaphors. We’re all mostly just 2-3 generations removed from the land after all.

Sowing the seeds of recovery and growth and all that. The (emotional) message: we have control over our destiny, there will be rewards for our hard work etc.

Though obviously avoiding any metaphors referring to Animal Farm (or the CAP)…

@ Gavin

Very well done!

I also suspect you enjoyed writing the post as much as I enjoyed reading it.


Excellent post.

Ultimately metaphor and analogy are tools that can be used for different purposes e.g. to explain, persuade, mislead etc. Understanding how and why the toolbox is being used is very valuable.

(Hmm… now what’s my ulterior motive for using tool as a metaphor for a metaphor..)


Excellent post. Lord Reith would be proud. You have succeeded in educating, enlightening and entertaining us all at the same time.

Your survey indicates that this blog presents more literary effusions than eruptions of economics. Even the rants have a literary quality that leaves their targets unscathed. And much of the economics is focused on matters that are beyond our ability to influence.

Mostly displacement activity to avoid confronting the issues that are within our power to address.

It was ever thus.

Ireland is not like the helpless infant in the following lines by Tennyson in no insignificant part because of the seriousness of the discourse over its plight as illustrated in this blog generally. The discussion is much enlivened when it becomes self reflexive as in Gavin’s post.
But what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light,
And with no language but a cry.

An American Friend

Interesting post Gavin
I forgot about that Irish Eunuch remark…..
I notice the Keiser is reporting a Business Insider article about the loss of the Irish Libido.
Maybe we have just lost our self respect.
Maybe the Pepsi Max generation did not have a coming of age trial that is common to more primative societies.
Yes well I have had the view for some time that western culture has been feminised to point of absurdity.
And no I am not talking about starting a few wars.
But the notion of physical risk has been surgically removed from the western male psyche and now the poor fellow is psychologically compromised into a little box of his own making.
Although not strictly Irish in the conventional sense, that Tim Severin quality has been lost withen the western ether somewhere in the past.
The absurdity of present financial traders risks would become more apperent if these bozos found themselves on the real ragged edge a few times in their life.

@ Gavin

Thanks for the 14th c reference. You have some unusual products on your economist shelf. Now if you want to think about how ‘rationally calculating man’ emerged, you could try The Gift, by Marcel Mauss. There are all sorts of reasons to give and to receive, and as the entertainment industry shows, the creation of the value of an object is as important as the creation of the object itself.
There is no economy without society, and social construction is everywhere. I part company with the post-modernists though, because life cannot be reduced to a text.

@ DoC

It’s not that long since people in Ireland knew cold and hunger. Lots of the old stock knew what it was like not to have a bob. Many of our great musicians came up to Dublin to broadcast on 2RN. If they got the trainfare they considered themselves lucky.
Fann tamaill agus feicimid.

@ paul quigley

“There is no economy without society, and social construction is everywhere. I part company with the post-modernists though, because life cannot be reduced to a text.” – ‘but all this [waves vaguely] is text paul, didn’t you know’?

Just kidding.

I have been thinking further about your initial post, and will pick you up on Mauss, but will save further posts for approriate threads.

To finish off in style, with Keynes for now:

“The day is not far off when the economic problem will take the back seat where it belongs, and the arena of the heart and the head will be occupied or reoccupied, by our real problems – the problems of life and of human relations, of creation and behavior and religion.”

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