Friday, July 25, 2008

WSJ Opinion: Economics as Metaphor

Economics as Metaphor:
...A natural system has built-in redundancy. It manages and heals itself. The economic system is no exception. On this page about 10 years ago, Penny Russell and I argued against the idea that the economy is a "house of cards," susceptible to collapse as soon as a few cards are dislodged. We suggested that it's more like a beehive. The future of the hive does not depend on full employment for all the worker bees. In fact, an accident can put many bees out of action without compromising the hive as a whole.

Metaphors are important. If they are off the mark, they can deceive. But good metaphors can help maintain perspective amid chaos. The community of banks, for example, can be likened to players in a game of musical chairs. As the music stops, some comfortable backsides are thrown out to be replaced with fresh ones. When the music resumes, wealth has been redistributed, and livelihoods have been turned upside down, but the game goes on.

Most businesses and workers hurt by this financial chaos are as innocent as those whose farms were flooded by torrential rains in Iowa. In nature's rough justice, short-sighted decisions by some can cause much hardship for others. Yet despite the human tragedies at the local level, the system as a whole muddles through.

Failure to recognize this endangers the mental health of our society. We create a far bigger tragedy when we lose heart, change the rules of the game, or act recklessly with quick fixes.


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