Thursday, August 20, 2009
Legislation is like sausage. You want the outcome but you don’t want to see how its made.
This metaphor, sausage-making, has been all over the news for the last month as the federal government tries to create a health care plan. At first, the NPR announcers would explain the full simile every time they discussed the issue: You know, it’s like what they say about lawmaking…
Now they no longer bother to explain the origin of the metaphor; they simply refer to the legislating process as sausage-making. When the intricacies of one proposed health-care model get too complicated to discuss any further, the commentator dismisses the line of discussion with, It’s all part of the sausage-making process. Or when a guest expert is questioned on some flaw in his or her favored plan, the expert will say, But this is all just the sausage-making. The implication is that these details are so messy and unpleasant that the public would do better to just shut them out—cover our ears, shut our eyes, la la la I can’t hear you making that sausage—and enjoy the delicious outcome when it is delivered from the kitchen in its appetizing and seemingly sanitary state.
And yes, in this metaphor, the senate is the kitchen. The chefs are on August recess this month, so today I heard this on the radio: The Obama administration is still trying to make sausage even though there are no senators in the kitchen.
Clearly sausage-making has become a conventionalized term, a micro-cliché meant to encapsulate both the ugliness of the legislative process as well as the implication that the public would be better off not knowing about this ugliness. Like most clichés, it started with a clever idea but has now become a lazy shorthand, an expression that permits us not to dwell too long on its meaning.
This type of lazy analogy seems like a bad thing, but the analogies at the beginning of the sub-prime mortgage crisis were even worse. These analogies did not have a conventionalized meaning; instead, they were being used to actively argue for a particular course of action.
Think about it, the expert on the radio show would say. If your car is about to go off a cliff, you don’t slam on the breaks. You steer away from the cliff.
This, self-evidently, proved that the government should impose a moratorium on foreclosures. Or maybe it was that the government should not impose a moratorium; I can’t remember what the cliff represented exactly. The commentator didn’t have much time to speak, and in lieu of explaining why his plan would work, he used the metaphor. He probably thought that it would be attention-catching and memorable, which it was; unfortunately, I can’t remember his actual argument.
I heard so many of these analogies on the topic of the mortgage and banking crisis that I needed to write them down to remember them all:
The economy is like an ocean; it rises and falls, and consumers are like a boat… For a plant to grow, it needs sunlight and water; it won’t grow if you stick it in a closet… If a person is overweight, he needs to cut out unnecessary parts of his diet but not key nutrients…
All of these analogies would have been fine illustrations of an argument, but, in almost all cases, they were given as the main explanation in support of a particular argument. Why do you think regulations would stifle the creative forces of the market? Because the economy is like an ocean. Why do you think we need to invest government money in the housing market? Because the economy is like a plant.
I heard one analogy that I thought was actually helpful: “People say that the mortgage and banking sectors should be unregulated, that the market will regulate itself. You wouldn’t say that about the meat industry.” We regulate the meat industry because we know we can’t count on the market to protect something as important as our health; likewise (according to the analogy), we can’t count on the market to protect the public from poor lending practices and their disastrous results for the economy. This analogy, which compared regulation in several areas, actually seemed to be part of the argument, as opposed to a metaphor that was being inflated into something more.
The critical thinking textbook I teach from says this about false analogies: “In a false analogy, one compares two things in which the key features are different.” I always tell my students that I don’t quite agree with this definition, since almost any analogy compares things that are different; that’s the whole point of an analogy. The book gives an example of a mountain climber who argues that while his sport is dangerous, people die taking showers, too. The book claims that this analogy is false because mountain climbing and showering are different: “To construct a more convincing analogy, the mountain climber should compare the risk in mountain climbing with that in another high-risk sport such as race car driving.”
This suggestion seems strange to me. If the mountain climber’s point was that many daily activities contain an element of risk, why would he compare climbing to race car driving? What would it do for his argument to compare two similar things?
However, when I think about the metaphors used for the economic crisis, I start to agree with the authors of my textbook, that sometimes analogizing similar things is more persuasive than different ones. The housing industry works something like the meat industry, and it is helpful to compare the role that regulations play in both markets.
I believe that the purpose of the analogy is what determines whether it is false. When you’re trying to illuminate an abstract concept (such as the value and necessity of taking risks), you may need to bring together wildly different ideas and draw unlikely connections. Mountain climbing is nothing like taking a shower—and yet, how fascinating to think that many people die showering each year, and yet we never fear taking a shower, while we might fear mountain climbing based on one horrific story. So difference works in this kind of example.
However, when you are trying to advocate for a law or government policy, and your sole argument is a horribly oversimplified analogy, I’ll have to object: the economy is not a plant, a car, the ocean, or a sausage!