What is the power of money metaphors?

From ‘time is money‘ to ‘tightening our belts‘, we’ve examined quite a few money related expressions and metaphors on Enrichmentality.  But does such language have any real power over how we think – and act?

As I mentioned a while back, I recently had the opportunity to attend the Money Talks? conference at Corvinus University of Budapest. Although they took different approaches, the three keynote speakers all discussed the topic of metaphors and money.

The power of metaphors and money

Professor Zoltán Kövecses focused on metaphors that describe the power of money, like ‘cash is king’ or ‘money is power’. (My favourite, however, was: ‘money is like sea water: the more you drink, the thirstier you become’).

Kövecses identified two key metaphors:

  • money as liquid, which refers to the fact that it changes ownership, and
  • money as force, which describes our relationship to money.

Interestingly, Lilla Szabó reported no uses of the ‘money is liquid’ metaphor in her poster presentation analysis of bitcoin-related articles. Rather, journalists describe the ‘mining’ of bitcoins as a ‘rush’ for ‘digital gold’. This suggests a comparison between the time and effort required in mining precious metals, and the mathematical calculations required to obtain bitcoins.

When it comes to force, there are many types of power that money is said to have. There is social power (‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’, or even ‘money talks’). The power of desire (‘to chase the big buck’). Money is a source or cause (‘money is the root of all evil’). And it can become more powerful as it can increase in number (money begets money).

Yet, as we know on Enrichmentality, money is not all powerful, and our language tells us this too. ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ and ‘money isn’t everything’ are just two phrases that reinforce this message.

Are we speaking the same (metaphorical) language?

I was most interested by Kövecses’ observation that money as liquid tends to be the metaphor used in professional jargon (think ‘liquidity’, ‘floats’, ‘cashflow’, etc.). Meanwhile, money as force often appears in common wisdom. I believe this is related to my observation that the kinds of money talk children hear in the home and school are not the same as those spoken in the ‘money people’s world of wall street’.

How metaphors can help us learn

Professor Ray Gibbs demonstrated the power of metaphors, including money-related metaphors. Opening with one of my favourite examples – Warren Buffett’s use of ‘The Science of Hitting’ by Ted Williams in his investing, Gibbs put forward two hypotheses why we use verbal metaphors:

  • for communicative purposes (to make abstract, difficult ideas easier to talk about) and
  • for cognitive purposes (to make abstract, difficult ideas easier to think about).

In economics, metaphors are rampant. We call a financial crisis a ‘storm’, implying it is a force of nature. We call the economy ‘depressed’, implying it has (mental) health.

Some believe these to be ‘dead metaphors’ which have lost their power. When we hear of a depression, for example, we don’t necessarily imagine the full weight of mental despair.

Yet as Gibbs shows, metaphors have enormous power over us – power we don’t even recognise. Compare ‘bad day’ to the more metaphorical ‘rough day’. The word ‘rough’ actually causes activity in the parts of the brain involved in physically sensing texture. Physically acting out metaphors can even help us learn new concepts.

You don’t have to swing at every pitch

And here we come back to Buffett’s use of ‘The Science of Hitting’, and the lesson that ‘you don’t have to swing at every pitch’. Metaphors also allow us to comprehend one domain in the terms of another. Buffett, both for his own purposes, and for teaching others, has been able to use baseball, and the idea of waiting for pitches (companies) that are in one’s sweet spot (circle of competence) to explain his investing principles.

This got me thinking about Buffett’s business partner, Charlie Munger, whose use of mental lattices has long inspired me. Munger seems to take this principle to another level. He draws upon many different fields, including biology, applying these lessons to his investing.

The ability to connect ideas from multiple fields – interdisciplinarity, or even transdisciplinarity – is something I believe to be extremely important. Unfortunately, we often focus too much on ‘specialisations’ or silos of study. Economists talk to other economists. Linguists talk to other linguists. One of the reasons the Money Talks? conference was so interesting was that it brought together people from so many different fields.

In her poster presentation, Gyöngyi Katona displayed how she has used human-centred design, the concept of the Ancient Greek agora (Ἀγορά) and linguistic landscaping to try and promote more ethical behaviour and more communication in the workplace. As she observes, the agora was a public place of assembly and used for markets. It is from this double use that came the two Greek verbs ἀγοράζω (I shop) and ἀγορεύω (I speak in public). Her designs for a bank that looks like a fair trade cafe combines working with people and the display of positive messages, recognising the potential power of language.

The danger of (mis)using metaphors

The first keynote, Professor Mari Lee Mifsud talked about the gift, the market, and the question of living well together. She noted money ‘is the measure in neoliberalism of human flourishing’ – and a very poor one at that.

As I have examined in previous posts, increases in GDP are only correlated with wellbeing (health, happiness, etc.) to a point.

This is a macro-economic version of what Your Money or Your Life observes happens on an individual level. An increase in money makes us happier, but eventually, the effect wears off. It can even reverse, as the pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses’, the stress of maintaining vast property, and a sense of meaninglessness sets in.

Instead, Mifsud suggests, we can learn from Ancient Greek notions of hospitality, and the relationship between money and the origins of democracy.

As Jogan Norberg notes in Progress, the likelihood of democracy taking hold and lasting in a previously undemocratic state is related to the GDP of its citizens. The more money people have (up to a point – about $1,500 annually), the more likely democracy is to prevail. Not because wealthier people are ‘smarter’, but because money generally brings educational opportunities, and the existence of a middle-class brings stability.

But Mifsud links money and democracy in a slightly different way. She explains democracy as a shift from aristocracy (rule of [powerful] families) to the rule of the citizens (or polis). Money meant goods previously reserved for the privileged from birth could be secured by anyone with the money to obtain them. The $10 I hold today is worth the same as the $10 the prime minister holds. The same as the $10 the richest woman in Australia holds. And so on.

Of course, we now have a situation in which increasingly, it is only those who inherit vast sums of money from birth that can have enough money to buy certain goods, and no matter how much one works, one can never hope to earn that much.

Money and power

A remedy for wealth inequality in ancient times, Mifsud points out, was ostracism. Citizens in the agora could vote to exile someone they felt was becoming too powerful for a number of years. Visiting Athens last year, we had the opportunity to view some of the pottery shards used in these polls. (Paper, at the time, was too much of a luxury item).

Compare this to the kind of voting that goes on in ‘democracies’ today. Instead of the wealthy being forced to leave, they are rewarded with political power on top of their existing economic power. Instead of ostracism, the wealthy have tens of millions of followers on social media.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but it seems to me that the system of wealth redistribution is integral to a functioning democracy. Money does talk when it comes to politics, but it shouldn’t be the deafening voice it is today.

While their perspectives on the importance and uses of metaphors were quite diverse, these talks highlight the power of talk about money. The problems inherent with viewing money as a stand-in for happiness, the potential for metaphors to increase our learning, and the importance of identifying gaps in metaphor usage.

Money has traditionally been viewed as a problem, by writers and thinkers as diverse as Marx, Goethe, Shakespeare and Christ. But as Kövecses points out, ‘the problem of money is not today’s problem, the problem of money is eternal, or at least since money exists’.

Money is not a metaphor for wellbeingIn the next post, I’ll bring you more of what I learned at the Money Talks? conference. It’s of course impossible to do justice to the many interesting arguments raised by the presenters, but I hope you have enjoyed this snippet!

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Today’s featured image of the Money Talks? conference program – and the lovely chocolate coins representing Hungarian Forint!

What is your favourite money metaphor?
Has it influenced you in any way?
Let me know in the comments!

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