Financial Metaphors: Mechanic, Organic Or…?

By Wagner Richard | Wisdom

Mar 08
Newtonian physics: the system of physics based principally on the dynamics of Isaac Newton, 1642-1727 (including his famous law of gravitation). The system was very successful in predicting the behavior of particles, pendulums, machines ,etc., up to the end of the 19th Century when the new physics began to have its impact.

Our metaphors fail to accurately reflect money and economic realities.

Newtonian physics: the system of physics based principally on the dynamics of Isaac Newton, 1642-1727 (including his famous law of gravitation). The system was very successful in predicting the behaviour of particles, pendulums, machines ,etc., up to the end of the 19th Century when the new physics began to have its impact.

Dr. Christopher Southgate

Though there is much debate among scientists about the particular forces acting upon organisms in particular situations, and about the pacing, or timing, of changes, there is little or no debate among biologists regarding the idea that natural selection, basically as outlined by Charles Darwin, is working on all organisms at all times.

Robert B. Hole Jr.

My, how we talk. Trouble is, how we talk reflects our thinking. Our thinking morphs into actions. And our actions pretty much mirror our personal and communal interiors.

Our talking tools include metaphors. Metaphors are fundamental, vital words; compelling, simplifying models. By structuring perceptions, they enable sensible comprehension of surrounding complexities. As a downside, they control and limit our vision. Therein lies an issue for thoughtful money workers. Regrettably, not only are our money words inappropriate for our current understanding of money’s function, they are unsuitable for money’s continued evolution.

Trouble is, our money words tend to ground in old models, particularly 17th Century physics and 19th Century biology. They have yet to incorporate the integral visions of 20th Century quantum physics or ecology. The result: “machines” vs. “ecosystems.” Not wrong, but not necessarily helpful. Often harmful. Mechanistic metaphors induce linear thinking that doesn’t accurately reflect 21st Century money. And money is hard enough without dysfunctional underpinnings. Unfortunately, inappropriate metaphors contribute to misunderstandings and questionable actions.

Money’s mechanistic misperceptions have rippling ramifications. Sectors separate. Ecological interrelatedness is absent. Machines “break,” needing “repair” (metaphorically implying that “repair” of a given machine part is actually possible). With machines, problems are fixed with fungible parts. Plus, machines are subject to forces such as gravity and velocities. Once in motion they tend to stay in motion. Reactions are equal and opposite.

That these do not generally apply to modern money forces has not hindered their persistent use. Consider alternatives, like “gardens.” We tend gardens. We don’t fix them. Conversely, merely tending imperfect machines will leave them broken. A tended garden is self-correcting, but requires time and patience. Gardens are calm; machines are not.

Same issues, different metaphors, different attitudes. Both models imply technical skill. One requires force and resistance; the other rewards serenity and tenderness. But when we disregard money’s underlying chaotic orders and interdependencies, we tend to think “repairs” not “cultivation.” Yet, money does not “fix” like an engine. Trillions of independent actions generate “money.”

Unfortunately, our money words are old and very tired. They come from times when wealth was might, land, jewels, silver and gold, not “money.” They ground amid seminal social transformations of rationalism and the Industrial Age when machines were simultaneously miracles and cultural revolutions. In those days, science partially supplanted religion’s belief systems—not just in the minds of most, but the hearts of many. Three hundred years later, Newtonian dogmatists continue to unconsciously insist that machine metaphors rule the world of money as if money was matter. Darwin’s self-congratulatory disciples proclaim “blood in tooth and claw” as a morally superior excuse for a market society without regard for money’s organic, interconnective virtues.

Now, we live with their metaphoric legacies. Too bad for us.

For example, we frequently proclaim “it is a jungle out there.” Yet, for the “jungle” metaphor to be meaningful, we ought, at the very least, have some knowledge of “jungles.” But our ideas mislead. The dictionary says a “jungle” is. “a confused or chaotic mass of objects.” Or “a place of ruthless struggle for survival.” Really. It has been my observation that “jungles” are rich, diverse, organic, chaordic ecosystems within which virtuous symbiosis is both norm and necessity. This metaphor views “jungles” as places where systemic survival requires interactive, complex, diverse, self-contained systems. They thrive with no help from humans, or in spite of us. Neither jungles nor money are “either you or me” places. Their synergies enable wealth and its spread.

Of course, jungles contain death and killing, but without this virtuous and eco-systemic connectivity, there is no jungle. Yet, Darwinism continues to proclaim the morality of savagery, apparently justifying the most heinous behaviors. This is not “truth.” This is just succumbing to delusions and inept metaphors.

Fractals are as real as corpses and much more instructive. Ecologies and economies reflect organic chaos and systemic flawlessness machines can’t match. Mechanistic thinking blocks money’s ecological realities. As no jungle species could survive without mutually dependent species, most humans depend in part upon money’s circulation, especially in this country.

It may be a “jungle,” but if Qwest and United have money troubles, the consequences flow to suppliers, employees, and stockholders. In turn, their effects will spread to other suppliers, employees and stockholders, plus related reliants. That is not “survival of the fittest.” That is virtuous interdependency.

So, what do we actually hear in our words? As our world shrinks, as the money forces grow in criticality, as financial realities harden and become parts of our ways of life, our language will enable or obstruct our personal and collective abilities to intelligently respond.

We may eventually invent the words but, for now, linguistic limitations are all too real. Headline language and political speeches consistently reflect Newtonian machinery, math, fixed forms or vectors.

Consider these words and phrases: Assets, frozen, liquidated, leveraged, multiplying, dividing, shrinking, impact, returns, stuck, expanding, contracting, market moved up, down, head, shoulders, floor, ceiling, sideways, light, heavy, top-down, bottom-up, hierarchy, base, pyramidal, structure, top, down, both sides, change, rock solid, hard times, left, right, position, retool, fix, economic machine, fungible, downsizing, function, momentum, union, solidarity, worker, management, counter, constructive, unconstructive, circle, stakes, stakeholders, tools, under, control, economies heat up or cool down, inflation, deflation, depression, sectors, indexes rising or falling, increased, decreased, cracks, stability, instability, balance, leverage, bottom line, in the red, or in the black, controls, instruments, upper class, lower class, middle class and so on.

These are flatland indicators of existing language. And they are as inadequate as thermometers for helping us grasp our financial weather systems. Newtonian words mislead and distort. So many words, so little holism. Unless we can pierce our language sources, it will be impossible to view our current issues through the eyes of current realities.

The “economy” is dysfunctional shorthand implying an impenetrable monolith while obfuscating the living, breathing, teeming, organically chaotic realities of money/market systems. To suggest that the “markets” go “up” or “down” is as conceptually ridiculous as the convention that “north” is “up” and “south” is “down.” There is no reason Africa is not “above” Europe. In point of fact, there is no “up” or “down” on the sphere that is planet earth, and there is no “up” or “down” for an “economy.” These are merely metaphoric conventions.

Consider Darwin’s notions of the “survival of the fittest.” It enables the pervasive notion that economic systems ought to reward the strong not the weak; that it is fit and proper for Darwinian natural selection to control the body social. Unfortunately, the metaphor is inept and inapt. Our economies are more like human bodies or natural ecosystems than machines. Human needs do not contain the need for the “strongest” or “biggest” companies.

Newtonian organizations are “downsized” and “streamlined.” Gardens are “weeded” and plants are “pruned.” Newtonian organizations fear “non-productivity” and reward instant results; gardens “lie fallow,” anticipating “fertility” and “generativity” in nature’s time.

Not “wrong “ or “right,” modeling spirits generate diverse thoughts and consequences. Same issues, dissimilar views, different expectations.

There is no economic “machine” subject to “controls,” “leverage,” “infrastructure,” “parts,” “sectors” or “sides.” We cannot sensibly reduce millions of buy-sell decisions to sound-bite analyses. Metaphoric understanding of our eco-nomic ecosystems requires more.

“So what!?” you properly ask. Unfortunately, this “so what” is our baseline, most fundamental, essential economic/money perceptions. These perceptions touch every living being. If our metaphors fail to accurately reflect money and economic realities, they are neither adequately enabling nor enhancing understanding.

What if we talked “organisms” instead of “sectors?” Fractals, not parts? Or grounded our language in ecosystems and mutually strengthened interdependencies rather than machine’s fragile linearities? What if money analogies engaged imaginations at levels of life forces and bodies social rather than Freud’s considerably less tasteful analogies to human waste?

Quantum physics, biology/ecology and spirituality show promise. Spiral dynamics, integralism, chaordic theories and the arts have unlimited metaphoric possibilities. Can we generate new conceptual vocabularies? What are we learning and how can we apply it?

Either way, these are times of promise or threat. Machines are yesterday’s news. Today’s includes biology, quantum physics, expansive integral finance and metaphoric references awaiting birth. With a public unwilling to accept the inherent inhumanity of “survival of the fittest” or economies built on nonproductive “isms,” these times seek mutual understanding and grasps of fragile human economies/systems.

Our language is vital. First we must notice how we talk. Second, we must process. Finally, we ask whether our metaphors deepen or cloud our understanding. Then we notice our results. This is good interior work for a 21st Century profession.

May our conversations facilitate vision, understanding and peace.

Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving LLC, based in Denver.

Article originally published in Financial Advisor Magazine March, 2003

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