Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Paul Krugman's Missing Metaphor

Sometimes a vigorous cardio workout is just what the doctor DIDN'T order.

You know, for a few years now, I've been reading Paul Krugman desperately pleading that this is NOT the time for fiscal austerity in response to the economic crash. Much the opposite, he says, this is time to inject capital into the economy as a way to stimulate growth. Furthermore, he argues (very convincingly, IMHO) that because interest rates are at a century-long low, there can be no better time to invest heavily in infrastructure renovation. Fixing all those bridges, tunnels, and airports at virtually zero percent interest is a pretty sweet deal. The logic, in other words, seems pretty unassailable.

Krugman take another swing at it in yesterday's column in the New York Times, writing:

"Now, just to be clear, this is not a case for more government spending and larger budget deficits under all circumstances — and the claim that people like me always want bigger deficits is just false. For the economy isn’t always like this — in fact, situations like the one we’re in are fairly rare. By all means let’s try to reduce deficits and bring down government indebtedness once normal conditions return and the economy is no longer depressed. But right now we’re still dealing with the aftermath of a once-in-three-generations financial crisis. This is no time for austerity."

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Now, maybe it's just me, but this seems to be an argument in desperate need of a metaphor—an image that crystallizes what's being said. Since this thing began, four years ago, the same image comes to my mind every time I read/hear the debate: 

A man (the economy) has had a massive heart attack (crash). It almost killed him, but, with huge infusions of blood (cash), he survived and is slowly recovering. But recovery is slow and tenuous. He's still shaky on his feet and looking pretty damned pale. What's the smart thing to do now?

Krugman and others seem to be saying, Take it easy. Get lots of rest, plenty of liquids, and sleep a lot. Chillax and don't stress til you're back on your feet. Paul Ryan and his crowd have been arguing that this is exactly the sort of behavior that caused the heart attack in the first place (possibly true) and thus more of the same is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing.

You see the problem here? Krugman's argument makes logical sense, but the Republican's argument makes emotional sense—which isn't really, you know, sense—even if it feels just like it. The Republican's position has all the appeal of chastising your lazy, overweight uncle for never getting off his fat ass to exercise, eat right, whip himself into shape. But is bedside in Intensive Care really the place to be making this particular point? The guy can hardly hobble to the bathroom, and you want to force him to go on early morning jogs and take hot yoga classes?

Krugman's saying, "Let the dude recover before you impose your moralistic discipline on him. Plenty of time for guilt tripping him later, unless you kill him with your harsh love now." Maybe I'm naive, but I can't help thinking that if Krugman had used this metaphor repeatedly over the past few years, more people would agree with him. Sure, a disciplined aerobic exercise program is good for you—unless you're flat on your back recovering from a massive heart attack. 

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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