Chocolate teapots and the power of analogy
My wife Amy has had a new job for a year or so now and most of her team are from the US, which leads to some amusing cultural clashes and misunderstandings. Being both from the north of England and a working-class background, she has some very colourful phrases and analogies. One that had all her colleagues laughing was when they were recently discussing a particularly useless individual, and she blurted out, ‘that bloke, well he is about as useful as a chocolate teapot!’
A good analogy is a hugely powerful tool for shaping opinions and understanding. They can both inform and indeed mislead too. The right, as always, have some of the best ones, which have done untold damage to public debate and understanding.
The government as a household
Perhaps the most famous is the comparison of the national economy to that of an ordinary household, and analogy that dates back to the 1930s but made most famous by UK Prime Minister Mrs. Thatcher, herself a shopkeeper’s daughter. This is her quote in 1979 when she became UK Prime Minister: ‘Any woman who understands the problems of running a home will be nearer to understanding the problems of running a country.’
The analogy that a government is like a family or a small business, and cannot live beyond its means, has been extremely successful. On the right it is used by politicians across the world to persuade the public of that all government borrowing is wrong and of the painful necessity of austerity and budget cuts. It is used to destroy the case for progressive investments of all kinds, from universal health care to green energy.
It just feels like good old-fashioned sense – pervasive, persuasive – but completely false. It has probably done more harm than any other that I can think of. Like all good analogies, it is power comes from reducing something distant, complex, and largely misunderstood (government finance and macroeconomics) to something close, simple, and recognized by all. It is also emotional, conjuring up in the frugal listener memories of the profligate and immoral, unable to manage their finances and live within their means.
The heroic Ha Joon Chang and his amazing analogies
A couple of weeks ago I got to interview for our EQUALS podcast one of my heroes, Ha Joon Chang, the wonderful economist and author. He has made it his mission to bring economic understanding to the majority and challenge the assumptions of orthodox economics in ways that can be easily understood, in a series of brilliantly written books (if you haven’t read them, I would highly recommend you might). He is the master of the analogy and used two in the interview.
He compared the need to regulate corporates to motor vehicles. When we all went around on foot or by horse there was no need for traffic regulations and safety restrictions, but as cars became ever more powerful, we needed speed limits, airbags, seatbelts and the whole panoply of regulations to maximise their benefits and minimise their harm. Similarly, as corporates have become more and more powerful, the need to regulate and control them to ensure the do good rather than harm has grown.
We have a similar analogy, trying to show the madness of neoliberalism, and the idea that the best way to organise society is through the market; we said that markets are an important engine for driving prosperity and higher standards of living, but it would be madness to let a car engine drive the vehicle, or read the map, or decide on the destination. I like that one, but it feels like we still haven’t quite got it right- it would be great to know what people think about it.
Ha Joon’s other brilliant analogy was about mainstream economics and neoliberalism too but was much better. He compared it to Catholic theology in medieval Europe: ‘Basically [mainstream neoliberal economics] is functioning as an ideology to justify the status quo, however unjust, undynamic and wasteful it may be. And like medieval theology, to make sure this is not accessible to ordinary people, they use jargon, and maths and statistics - some of these things that even I don’t understand – in exactly the same way that the Vatican prohibited the translation of the bible into vernacular languages so that only the 1% could understand it. Basically, only trained clergy and the rich, who could speak Latin, whilst the rest were supposed to simply accept what their priest told them.’
Not just simplifying but defining the battlefield
A great analogy not only simplifies it also defines the terrain on which the argument is fought. Politicians on the left seem unable to successfully challenge the deeply held belief that governments cannot must not ‘max out the credit card’ and instead feel they need to show they can be even more abstemious and fiscally ‘disciplined’ than their right-wing opponents.
The Dutch author Rutger Bregman famously compared Davos to a ‘Firefighters conference where no one is talking about water’- by water he was referring to taxes. That was great, but it still casts the Davos set as firefighters; so implicitly the ones with the answer if only they could work it out. By saying instead that ‘asking participants at Davos to solve the inequality crisis is like asking a group of arsonists how to put out a fire’, we not only simplify and explain, but also firmly position billionaires and global elites as structurally the problem, and not the solution which is shifting the terrain too.
Anyhow, speaking with Ha Joon reminded me that if we want to shift public opinion firmly in favour of progressive policies, we need to make use of every possible way of getting our arguments across, and analogies are a very powerful way of doing this, whether it is chocolate teapots or Catholic catechisms.
Author: Max Lawson, Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International and EQUALS podcast co-host. He is also the co-chair of the Global People’s Vaccine Alliance.