Bad Insect Metaphors

Economists often talk in metaphors. Good metaphors can be useful communications tools- compare a new concept to a familiar concept. Bad metaphors do not help communications. Instead they misinform and are sometimes used to change the subject or dismiss awkward questions. The latest bad metaphor comes from European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi who said,

The euro is like a bumblebee – it shouldn’t fly, but it does. The euro needs to change into a real bee, and it will.

As I posted on this blog, the “Bumblebees Can’t Fly” meme originated with the 1930s work of French entomologist, Antoine Magnan and French engineer Andre Sainte-Lague. As the principles behind fixed-wing airplane flight were understood and elaborated, Magnan and Sainte-Lague applied cutting edge (for the 1930s) aerodynamics to the bumblebee and concluded that, “Bumblebees cannot fly like a fixed wing aircraft”. Critics and comics shortened their conclusion to, “Bumblebees can’t fly” which unfortunately obscured the point Magnan and Sainte-Lague intended.

Bumblebees fly because the wings are not fixed, they beat. Bumblebees actively move the wings over one hundred times per second. Flying bumblebees send nerve stimuli to the wing muscles to to move the wings. Stop the stimulus and the muscles stop contracting, the wings stop beating and a flying bumblebee will crash. A more logical bumblebee metaphor for the Euro is: “Stop the stimulus and the “Bumblebee” Euro will crash.”

Unfortunately, Draghi doesn’t go there. Instead he talks about the bumblebee transforming into “a real bee”. By real bee, he probably means a honey bee. However, honey bees are still bees. Honey bees and thousands of other species of bees fly by moving their wings. The “Bumblebees can’t fly” meme also applies to the honey bee. A honey bee cannot fly like a fixed wing aircraft either. Honey bees and bumblebees are different species. Species don’t magically transform. A better metaphor would be, “If we wait for a bumblebee to magically transform into a honey bee, we will wait a long time. Applying this metaphor to the Euro, “It will be a long run before the Euro magically transforms from a Bumblebee Euro to a “real bee” Euro.” As economist John Maynard Keynes quipped, “In the long run we are all dead.”

Bumblebees fly and avoid crashing by stimulating their flight muscles to keep beating their wings

It should be obvious that failure to supply stimulus to beat the wings will result in a crash of any bee; from bumblebee to honey bee. It is equally obvious that when all parties (the private sector and governments) drastically reduce spending at once, an economy will crash. We have people who are tasked with managing our economies. When spending and demand drastically decrease and people cannot find jobs, it is supposed to be the job of our economic policy managers to stimulate those economic flight muscles and keep an economy flying. Not to pick on Mario Draghi, but economists should study their metaphors more closely to find the appropriate lessons.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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6 Responses to Bad Insect Metaphors

  1. It might seem to an entomologist that an economy resembles an insect, but that’s a mistake. An economy is a commercial ecosystem. There is no exact parallel for a means of exchange in living matter, but if you want to think of “stimulus”, think of it as tipping refined glucose into a particular spot while reducing the energy value of all glucose in the veins of every animal and plant by a steady percentage over time, so the overall amount of glucose in the total ecosystem remains the same in real terms.

    It would stimulate a great deal of activity where it was tipped, but weaken everywhere else, and if you kept it up of long enough would gradually make a desert. It would also bias things to particular creature adepts at taking up that raw glucose and using it, at the expense of other creatures – for instance, bees and ants would do very well, but aphids would suffer due to reduced nutritional value of the sap they drink. If you did enough of it, even the ants and bees would die as they glucose supplied would lose its metabolic usefulness before they had time to digest it.

    Once the “stimulus” stopped, the species previously benefiting from the raw glucose would suffer instant and terrible damage, but it would take a while for the rest of the ecosystem to get used to to not being taxed glucose again, leading to a long period of reduced activity in absolute terms, even though the main parts of the ecosystem would be saying things like “no recession here”.

    Of course some species would likely adapt themselves, Darwinian style, quite quickly to a continuous supply of raw glucose. These specially adapted species would die out entirely after the glucose redistribution stopped.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I am using glucose here analogously to purchasing power.

    • jjneal says:

      Interesting thoughts.
      It was an economist who tried to describe the economy using the bumblebee metaphor. Perhaps it is as absurd for an entomologist to discuss economics as it is for an economist to discuss insect flight?
      I agree that, in general, insects are not good metaphors for human economic activity.

      In your glucose example, insects do feed so the glucose can be replenished it does not have to be depleted. Energy from the sun is used to produce glucose, Money can be printed and added (and is added) to economic systems, so the glucose metaphor is perhaps less bad than you suggest.

      • Not all of us would describe the president of the ECB as an economist! Wrong school, anyway. It is always a bit of a problem with these continental “economists” as it is something of an English-language-only discipline. People forget that there are five schools of economics, Socialist, Fascist (aka Corporatist) , Keynesian, Neo-Classical and Austrian – where Neo-Classical can be thought of as a variety of Keynsianism. The continentals usually have exposure only to Socialist, Corporatist and some Keynesianism – but those schools are absolutely dire and don’t tell you anything useful. All the good stuff is written in English and tends not to get translated or gets translated late. The likes of Draghi or that awful Lagarge woman just don’t have the routine exposure to Neo-Classical or Austrian thinking so they never have an intellectual handle on what’s going on and end up speaking in drastically confused metaphor – like a bumblebee, like a bicyclee that will fall over if it stops, liek a train leaving the station leaving XYZ behind.

        Frankly anyone calling themselves an an economist, from any kind of mainstream academic background in non-English speaking country, I instantly consider suspect; as there just seem to be some profound cultural barriers that prevent them from getting policy matters onto firm reasoned grounds. Often great organisation men and terribly clever, but deep down adrift. They end up resorting to trying to impose their will on “markets” (which aren’t even things) and cocking everything up.

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