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The Frankenstein Economy: Monster metaphor of the moment

[Note added 09/24/08: There is now a sequel post to this one, offering several more examples of the Frankensteinian “monster amok” theme as it’s being used in contemporary economic discourse.]

Has anybody else noticed the increasing prevalence of monster metaphors, especially Frankenstein-themed ones, in mainstream public discourse about the mounting economic and financial disaster? I’m noticing it mightily myself, and am thinking this trend lends even more credence to horror writer and filmmaker John Skipp’s diagnosis and pronouncement that “These are horror times.”

(Needless to say — if you’re a longtime reader of The Teeming Brain, that is — this observation is occurring against the backdrop of all the reading and commenting I did about the mounting financial and economic catastrophe in my series of posts titled “Headlines from the Meltdown” earlier this year. You can enter that term into the search box on this page to access those posts.)

Some examples of this monster metaphor rearing its head are:

On September 19 NPR’s Morning Edition aired a story that contained “former Wall Street economist” Nancy Kimmelman saying the current crisis stems largely from the extreme complexity of the financial products that were concocted by “mad scientist” type braniacs in the back rooms of Wall Street investment banks. You can listen to the entire story at the link and hear her words beginning about 2:30 into the roughly four-minute piece. Specifically, she says,

Wall Street has rocket scientists creating derivatives. These scientist types in back rooms with test tubes and bunsen burners. They’ve created monsters. They’ve created these securities that nobody has a handle on.

On September 20 there was a Reuters story (“U.S. readies massive toxic debt plan“) in which the second a third paragraphs invoked an apocalyptic biblical beast metaphor:

[The U.S. government’s] moves cap a week in which financial markets faced their most serious confluence of crises since the Great Depression in the 1930s and threatened national economies and the worldwide banking system.”It’s like having a heart attack, and you go and get your chest cracked open and get it fixed, but the next morning you’re still hurting,” said Warren Simpson, managing director at Stephens Capital Management in Little Rock, Arkansas. “This has been a beast of biblical proportions. Nobody has seen anything like it.”

Back in January, Bill Gross, manager of Pimco, the world’s largest investment bond fund and a frequently sought after commentator, talked in his newsletter about the “Frankenstein levered body of shadow banks” that actually runs world financial events behind the scenes, “craftily dodging the reserve requirements of traditional institutions and promot[ing] a chain letter, pyramid scheme of leverage, based in many cases on no reserve cushion whatsoever.” The Boston Globe quoted him prominently in a story titled “The Black Box Economy.” (Note: The story’s header said, “Beyond the recent bad news lurks a much deeper concern: The world economy is now being driven by a vast, secretive web of investments that might be out of anyone’s control.” Of course we now know, these eight months later, that this dire analysis isn’t conspiracy theorizing like some people might have suspected but a simple statement of the facts.)

In March The New York Times ran a piece about the mounting situation whose title says it all: “What Created This Monster?”

“Horror times,” indeed. Where’s Mary Shelley when we need her?

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p.s. I’m still settling into my new living arrangement in Central Texas. I wasn’t blown away by Hurricane Ike, although the forecasts made it sound like my part of the state (Waco area) was destined for a damaging blast. The bulk of the storm went east of me, with the ironic result that it turned out my friends and family back in southwest Missouri had a worse time of it than I did.

I’m teaching some classes at a college in Waco. I’m learning to avoid fire ants. I’m making new friends and looking for a permanent house. I’m enjoying the fact that I didn’t have to leap back into the high school teaching grind when the new school year kicked off. I’m hoping to start posting here more regularly again (turns out the blog’s resurrection a couple of months ago was sort of short-circuited by my relocation). So there’s the in-a-nutshell update.

Be well and keep your head. As you and I and all of us know from recent news headlines, life looks like it’s about to get even weirder. Right on schedule.