The Financial Crisis of 2008-09: Capitalism Didn't Fail, But the Metaphors Got a 'C'

36 Pages Posted: 9 Sep 2010 Last revised: 31 May 2011

Date Written: September 17, 2010


This is a paper for the Minnesota Law Review's October 15, 2010 symposium, "Government Ethics and Bailouts: Past, Present, and Future." The panel topic is "The Past: Did Capitalism Fail?" The paper addresses not the merits and demerits of modern global financial systems, but instead how those of us who are not financial professionals might make sense of them, particularly when they are in catastrophic mode. The thesis is that the question itself reveals the extent to which the financial crisis has not been so much about whether an economic system succeeds or fails, but the meaning human beings draw from natural and man-made catastrophes. When the world discombobulates our sense of order, our expectations of cause-and-effect, we seem either (a) to question our most fundamental assumptions about science, progress, and social order, or (b) to look for someone to blame.

The paper considers whether the verb "fail" in the question is transitive or intransitive. Is the question whether capitalism failed intransitively, as in "died," or is whether capitalism failed transitively, as in "flunked the test"? I argue that the question itself, in syntax and meaning, reveals our ambivalent relationship with telos, the extent to which order and regularity in nature and human affairs reflect purposes or ends. Relying on Steven Pinker's insights about verb usage, I tie the ambivalent syntax of the question to its equivalent ambivalent meaning in connection with the financial crisis itself. In the frame of the atelic (or intransitive) metaphor, capitalism failed in the sense of getting sick or dying, and the real problem was the perception that the professionals did not know how to cure the patient. In the frame of the telic (or transitive) metaphor, a well-engineered modern society hums along smoothly, operated and regulated by well-trained professionals. In that case, either the machine or its operators failed our expectations. I conclude by suggesting that if we understand the source of the metaphoric frames themselves, we may not solve the financial crisis, but we may be able to calm the troubled waters of our fundamental assumptions and our concomitant desire to find human or divine villains to blame.

Keywords: Pinker, Causation, Telos, Metaphor, Tönnies, Financial Crisis, Verb Usage, Catastrophe, Capitalism

JEL Classification: N20

Suggested Citation

Lipshaw, Jeffrey M., The Financial Crisis of 2008-09: Capitalism Didn't Fail, But the Metaphors Got a 'C' (September 17, 2010). Minnesota Law Review, Forthcoming, Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 10-47, Available at SSRN:

Jeffrey M. Lipshaw (Contact Author)

Suffolk University Law School ( email )

120 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02108-4977
United States


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