October 3, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich

Resisting metaphors: The case of trickle-down economics

I have recently been corresponding with Ahmed Abdel-Raheem, a metaphor researcher who is developing a theory of metaphor resistance. Ahmed is looking at how producers of metaphors deal with metaphor failure in various ways (denying it was a metaphor, reinterpreting it etc.) and how metaphor audiences or viewers can resist metaphors, be they verbal or visual or multi-modal, in various ways.

I was idly browsing my Twitter stream, trying to keep up with the economic car crash that’s engulfing our country, when I saw various satirical, ironic, parodic, sardonic, or whatever you might call it, depictions of what one may call the ‘policy-constitutive metaphor’ that underlies the UK government’s disastrous economic plan: trickle-down economics. As this metaphor has provoked a chorus of protests, I thought this might make a wonderful case study for what Ahmed calls ‘metaphor resistance’. In this post, I can only start that task. It needs much more serious work!

Ahmed points out that an audience can resist a metaphor for various reasons, such as its illogicality, its taboo status, its negative other-presentation, its less prestigious source frame, its alleged historical inaccuracy, or its lack of explanatory power. Extending or elaborating the metaphor in a funny or ironic way is another form of resistance. As we shall see, this seems to have been one of the main ways in which resistance against the trickle-down economics metaphor manifested itself.

Trickle-down economics

As stated in Investopedia: “The trickle-down theory states that tax breaks and benefits for corporations and the wealthy will trickle down to everyone else. Trickle-down economics involves less regulation and tax cuts for those in high-income tax brackets as well as corporations.”

And as the Evening Standard pointed out on 21 September: “The phrase is based on the idea that just as water at a higher level will inevitably flow downwards, so will wealth”. The article also revealed that the term “trickle down” “originated as a joke by humourist Will Rogers. Today, it is often used to criticise economic policies that favour the wealthy or privileged while being framed as good for the average citizen. At the time, Rogers was mocking President Herbert Hoover’s Depression-era recovery efforts, saying that ‘money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes it would trickle down to the needy’.” So, the metaphor frames something as being good which is actually bad.

That’s perhaps why the late “Economist John Kenneth Galbraith described trickle-down theory as ‘the less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.’”

Be this as it may, the concept went from joke to serious concept and now back again to joke (see this parody explanation of the concept). During that time it has provoked resistance in forms of satire and parody in jokes and cartoons, for example during the era of ‘Reagonomics’, a term that is now matched, satire and all, onto ‘Trussonomics’, to refer to the work of the World Economic Forum, to frame the Flint water pollution scandal and much more.

Resistance to that metaphor has history, a history that Kwasi Kwarteng, our Chancellor, who has a PhD in economic history from the University of Cambridge might have known.

Why do people talk about it now? In early September, when campaigning to become Prime Minister, Liz Truss set out her economic plan which was described as ‘trickle-down economics’. This was seen as a return to a 1980s economic ideology that influenced Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and contrasted with Boris Johnson’s ideology of ‘levelling-up’, to which he paid at least lip service. Trickling down and levelling up are ‘orientational’ metaphors that go in the opposite direction, something that is not immediately apparent to Liz Truss, it seems.

When Truss became Prime Minister on 6 September, she appointed Kwasi Kwarteng as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He announced a so-called ‘Mini-Budget’ on 23 September which was squarely based on ‘trickle-down economics’. Most importantly, he planned to cut income and business taxes, with the most significant reductions for those earning more than £150,000 annually, as they no longer have to pay the 45 percent additional rate. This was greeted with disbelief by the markets, the pound crashed and various other economic indicators went down.

This also provoked public outcry and protest, some of which was framed as a rejection of the trickle-down metaphor – as a rejection of the intended frame: that trickle-down is ‘good’.

These protests seem to have payed off. While writing this post, the government announced a U-turn on the abolition 45p tax rate. Liz Truss also tried to align her (resisted) trickle-down approach with the (more respected) levelling-up approach when she apparently told a Conservative committee: “Business is a good thing, making profit is a good thing. The City is a good thing and our financial services are a good thing. We need to be prepared to make that argument because we all care desperately about levelling up.”

Resistance to the trickle-down metaphor seems to have worked. How did it work?

Resisting metaphors

People began to make jokes about the trickle-down metaphor in words and in pictures as soon as it became clear that this was the economic ideology adopted by the government. Let’s first look at some verbal jokes.

Verbal resistance

One joke, indeed a sort of meta-joke, that circulated widely, highlighted that the purported effect of that policy, that the poor get a bit richer when the rich get even more rich, did not stand up to scrutiny: “I have a joke about trickle down economics. But I’m afraid 99% of you won’t get it.”

There are many more jokes on Twitter. This tweet highlighted in a rather literal way the fact that accumulation of wealth at the top does not lead to better wages at the bottom: “This is how trickle down economics works. In 2012 my hourly rate was £9 an hour. The chief exec was on 1.4 million. In 2020 my hourly rate was £9.90 an hour. The chief exec was on 4.8 million. He’s buying a yacht, i’m saving up for a meal out. We all deserve a decent life/future”.

Another tweet was more sarcastic: “I saw a homeless guy and I felt bad for him. So I did what I think any of us would do – drove to a nearby affluent area, found the biggest, nicest house and put a tenner through their letter box. You mark my words, before long that money will trickle down to the homeless guy.”

Resistance to the trickle-down metaphor was also resistance to established class and wealth hierarchies with the rich at the top and the poor, or peasants, at the bottom, represented abundantly by the wine-glass pyramid as a pictorial rendition of the trickle-down metaphor.

Yet another tweet made that point too, but even more vividly: “It’s not really trickle-down economics, we’re just drinking all the champagne and pissing on you Peasant.” This verbal act of resistance corresponded with a multitude of visual ones, based on wine and urine.

Visual resistance – cartoons

The ‘trickle’ in the metaphor can be represented by various substances, such as water, champagne, wine, and also urine – all substances that can flow down.

Alcoholic beverages create a space for images of wine flowing into and over wine glasses, from the top to the bottom of a pyramid of glasses. There are many parodies of that central image, such as the wine trickling down while the top glass gets bigger, or the wine being syphoned off into a different container called ‘Panama Account’ – the possibilities are endless. One cartoon, for example, depicts a man in a suit drinking out of a bottle, while standing beside a pyramid of empty glasses. The glass pyramid is a depiction of the class pyramid.

Urine in turn opens up a space for thinking about where it comes from and where it goes. As Kwasi Kwarteng proposed the trickle-down policy, it is not surprising that he came in for some caricaturing. The cover of The New European, for example, shows him doing a wee, but what comes out is actually a descending yellow line of a graph, showing that the policy is not working. The weeing frame is mapped onto the graph frame of economic performance. Here down really is down and matches the market reaction to the policy. There are many other (even more) scatological possibilities of playing with that image…

There are other ways of depicting this new policy, of course. In one cartoon, the focus is in fact not on the word trickle at all, as it shows somebody standing on a pile of cash shouting “Your Greed is hurting the economy”, while a little guy at the bottom holds up a placard saying “Raise the minimum wage”. There is also a rather creative cartoon that depicts people in Halloween costumes hearing a voice through a closed door saying: “You expect me to give you a handout? The sweets are on the roof. If you’re lucky, some will trickle down” and a thought bubble saying: “Oh crap, a Tory”

All these acts of metaphor resistance or defiance might, of course, eventually trickle down and contribute to resisting those who want to make this model work – the Tories.

Visual resistance – videos

If one had the stamina, one could trawl through TikTok and find many videos dealing with the trickle-down metaphor, but I’ll stick to a few examples found on Twitter.

One video became quite famous, by the comedian Rosie Holt who impersonates Tory MPs and gives quite believable interviews to news reporters exposing their weaknesses. In this video she explains how the trickle-down economy is ‘like watering a garden selectively’, thus employing a simile in order to destroy a metaphor. A real MP, Dawn Butler, tweeted a video of a class of children passing a plate of flower blindfolded over their heads from plate to plate while the amount of flower diminishes, and she says: “Pretty good demonstration of trickle-down economics”.

Another comedian, Rachel Parris, provides a rather sad but very funny explanation of trickle-down economics in this video for the Mash Report, in which she says: “Of course they wouldn’t give money to the poor people straightaway. A big cup of money? Full to the brim? No, a poor person would spill it!” Here the focus of the metaphor destruction is again on the fluid evoked by ‘trickle’, but this time we don’t see the big wine glass of a rich person getting bigger, but a poor hapless person spilling an imaginary and illusory cup of money that’s full to the brim.

Metaphors, policies and resistance

At the beginning of the pandemic, the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson often said that his government’s Covid policies were ‘world-beating’. The metaphor analyst Andreas Musolff wrote an article about the ironical, sarcastic and satirical metaphors that this metaphorical and hyperbolic claim provoked. He talks about various modes of ‘metaphor reversal’, such as “irony (i.e., putting the figurative claims’ implicatures in doubt implicitly), sarcasm (i.e., explicitly decrying their plausibility) and satire (i.e., exhibiting their presumed absurdity)”, all intended to debunk such over-exaggerated claims.

Such debunking is now happening again with regard to economic policy claims made by the Truss government. This may, yet again “lead to an erosion of trust in official communication as being unrealistic, which may foster beliefs in conspiracy theories”, as Andreas pointed out for Covid policies claimed to be world-beating.

Public resistance to policy metaphors certainly deserves more in-depth research in the future. Metaphors are important framing devices in policy and are supposed to make people think and act in certain ways. But sometimes one has to smash the frame.

Image: By Brent Moore on Flickr


Posted in LanguageMetaphors