Breathing in a Balloon: The economy when you’re thinking in pictures

When I visualize the economy, I think of a big air-filled balloon we all live in. We float around, breathing in, breathing out, the air flowing from place to place. It’s possible to imagine a world where we could get by without air, but here in the world of this balloon, we all need air to live.

We’re all part plant and part animal in this balloon, because after we breathe air out, anyone else can breathe it in and get the same benefits we got from it. The air passes from person to person, circulating. The whole thing should be a self-sustaining system.

Lately, though… there have been lots of people building additions onto the outside of this balloon, little extra bubbles. Air savings accounts. Now this is fine in moderation, if you have a nice small bubble, just big enough for you. It sets aside a bit of extra air in case you need it later. But some people are taking it to an extreme, making big bloaty bubbles sprout on the outside of our balloon, which begins to look like an inflated rubber glove with hundreds of big fat fingers.

These air-hoarders don’t actually use most of the air they set aside in their bubbles. From time to time, one of them might start a business that pumps a little bit of air back into the main balloon, but for every little bit it pumps in, it pumps more back into that air-hoarder’s bubble. And the bubble gets bigger and bigger, just sitting there not being breathed.

As time went on, the hundreds of people who had huge bubbles on the outside of the balloon gathered so much air into them that there wasn’t enough air left in the main balloon. It got small and soft, like a balloon that’s been leaking air for days, while the air-hoarders’ bubbles stayed fat and shiny. Things got tough for the millions of people who lived and breathed inside the main balloon. Some people went around feeling faint all the time. Some actually suffocated to death.

When they complained, sometimes the only answer they got was, “You’re just not trying hard enough to get air. Anyone can have enough air if they try hard enough.” But the less air there was in the balloon, the harder it was to round up enough for yourself, especially when there were hundreds of millions trying just as hard as you, and only enough air for maybe two-thirds of them to breathe comfortably.

It got to a point where people were panicking about the lack of air. Finally most people agreed that there was a crisis.

The government did some things that didn’t help at all, like pumping a bunch of their air in to fill up some of the air-hoarders’ bubbles that had started to leak air back out into the balloon.

The government also did some things that kind of helped a little, like using a magic machine that could create air out of thin nothingness. They made this air and let it loose into the sagging main balloon. Some people said, “That’s crazy. If you make air out of nothing and add it to what’s already in the balloon, there will be too much inflation, and it’ll ruin our whole system.”

And logically that should have been true, but this wasn’t a logical situation. In this crazy illogical situation, it didn’t hurt to add air to what was already there, because a lot of the air that was already there didn’t count, because it was locked away in the air-hoarders’ bubbles, and couldn’t be affected by anything out in the main balloon.

This doesn’t mean that the choice to make air out of nothing was a great choice. It wasn’t the best thing they could have done, but the fact that it didn’t ruin things just goes to show how crazy the whole scenario was.

And so the crisis got a little less terrible. People weren’t panicking as much anymore. The air-hoarders didn’t learn the lesson that their hoarding was ruining the balloon. After the worst of the crisis passed, they just kept sucking more air out into their bubbles as if nothing had happened, as if they couldn’t even see how the air in the main balloon was getting thin again as they continued.

People went on feeling faint, and people went on suffocating. When they complained, sometimes the only answer they got was, “If you don’t have enough air to breathe, then don’t breathe so much! You can survive on less than you’re breathing.” But those same people didn’t say the same thing to the air-hoarders, who were the ones who were really taking a lot more air than they needed.

This really is the imagery I get when I think about the economy. I think in pictures, especially when I’m trying to understand a complex system. And to visualize this system, the soft sagging balloon with growing, swelling bubbles on the outside is the picture my mind makes.

Seeing this picture in my head, it’s incredibly hard not to conclude that the logical solution is for the bubbles on the outside to release their air back in. It’s simple physics. I can’t imagine anything that would work better.

When somebody says, “But the big businesses are creating jobs and putting money into the economy!” I don’t know how I can make others see what I see. As the businesses get more profitable, my mind’s eye can see the bubbles swelling, and I can see the relative amount they’re pumping back in, and it is not enough to help.

When someone says, “Poor people are a drain on the economy because they’re accepting welfare when they don’t need it!” I am baffled, because I can see the tiny, tiny puffs of air that welfare is directing at the poor people in the balloon, and it is practically nothing compared to the big fat rubber-glove-fingers that belong to the air-hoarders.

When someone says “Anyone can become rich if they try hard enough,” I try to picture every person in the main balloon getting really industrious and working hard to build a big fat bubble-account. I try to picture it, but the math doesn’t work– there are too many of them, and not enough air left in the main balloon, and they each end up with just a teeny tiny soda-pop bubble that would barely last them a day.

Am I seeing it wrong? Is everyone else visualizing a different picture? Or are most people not thinking in pictures at all?

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