Trickledown & horseshit

Saturday 1 October 2016


Images are fascinating things to play with in the gymnasium of the imagination ... but images are only really worth the effort if they mean something, so we need to assess how images play out in relation to the real world.

A major selling point for the neoliberal idea of full-on, deregulated capitalism is the idea that the success of an economy benefits everyone. To put it another way, the rich get richer, but the poor get richer as well. This concept has recently been challenged with great authority and in great detail by Thomas Piketty in ‘Capital in the Twenty First Century’, who claims that inequality has increased significantly during the hegemony of neoliberalism – i.e. the rich have got richer but the poor have, actually, got poorer.

However, I would doubt that Piketty’s worthy and weighty tome has been read by many people who are not paid-up Economists. I myself have not read it, and depend merely on reports by journalists in responsible newspapers. Let’s face it: the power of an idea very often depends not so much on its logical strength or the force of supporting factual evidence, but more on its advertising slogan ... phrases which sum up what the idea is supposed to mean. I have recently considered three of these neat phrases in relation to the ‘everyone gets richer’ argument.

‘trickledown’ ... This metaphor suggests that wealth trickles down the hierarchy of society like water down a hill, because wealthier people pay poorer people to make things the wealthy want and do things the wealthy don’t want to do. In addition, the wealthy invest (in theory at least) in projects to make themselves even more money, like factories or shops or housing developments, thus creating employment. True enough ... up to a point, because it seems that more and more of the megawealth of the planet is tied up in playing the money markets and never gets spent in the real world at all. To extend the metaphor, such money is in a vast reservoir at the top of the hill, and never trickles anywhere.

First devised in the Reagan-Thatcher years, ‘trickledown’ has had lasting success. As a slogan, it’s brilliant – it’s short, and memorable, and the basic concept is easy to grasp since everyone understands how water trickles downwards. What no-one seems to notice is that it’s a pretty mean idea: only very small amounts ‘trickle’. You would have thought that it would be better advertising to use ‘flowdown’ or ‘cascadedown’ or even ‘flushdown’ (?) ... but nobody would have believed those. Why? Because everyone privately knows that the rich don’t pour money to the poor.

‘horseshit’ ... Regrettably, I came across this image as a translation from English in an article in Spanish, and I can’t now verify the source. However, the image was very clear, and I would express it like this: “The more dung the big horses leave, the more pickings for the little sparrows”.

Hmm ... well, you can see why this image has not formed part of the neo-liberals’ sales pitch. It’s an inherently disagreeable picture – big beasts carelessly scattering shit around, from which insignificant species scratch a living. But is it perhaps truer than the prettiness of ‘trickle’?

‘rising tide’ ... I am virtually sure that it was Bill Clinton who first said that “a rising tide lifts all of the boats”: that everyone benefits from an expanding economy. Moreover, note that the implication is that everyone benefits equally, since all boats rise by the same amount – which is very comforting, but almost certainly untrue. It seems self-evident that some people profit more than others in an expanding economy: that some (bigger) boats rise a lot more than many (smaller) boats, and even that a few boats sink, because their out-dated factory goes bust.

This image, like ‘trickledown’, is clear and memorable, being based on common human knowledge – and it has the pleasing connotation of suggesting equality. However, as suggested, it does not describe the real world accurately.

All three of these metaphorical phrases are useful in that they express concepts vividly and memorably; but all of them also obscure the reality that they purport to present. We need to unpack metaphors and analogies very carefully, especially when they are being used to sell a political argument. Imaginative images can be no more than elegant lies.

17 Nov 2016


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