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.”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.