Thursday, February 17, 2005

A Metaphor

I have a bathtub filled with water. Sometimes I pour water into the tub. Other times I dip water out. The water comes from various sources – the faucet, bottled water from the store, rainwater, urination, etc. I also use the water for various purposes – mainly bathing, cleaning, and drinking.

But I like to account for my drinking water separately. I use a chicken-wire fence to mark off a section at the foot of the bathtub. Every time I buy bottled water from the store, I pour it into the drinking-water section. And every time I want to drink, I make sure to dip from the same section.

When I pour in more bottled water than I dip out for drinking, I add to my Drinking Water Trust Fund. If I drank more than I poured in from bottles, I would be depleting the Trust Fund – but that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve been running a drinking-water surplus for a long time now. I’ve also been running a non-drinking-water deficit – that is, I use more water for non-drinking purposes than I put in from non-bottled sources. But for some reason, the water level in the drinking-water section isn’t any higher than the water elsewhere in the tub.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think I’ve figured it out. I think it might be because the fence is made of chicken-wire! So the water I pour into the drinking-water section could be mixing with the water in the rest of the tub – which is rather disturbing, since I’ve been urinating there.

In future years, I might need to drink more drinking-water than I’m putting in. In fact, I’m getting thirstier every day, drinking more and more water. And even though I’m still pouring in more bottled water than I’m drinking, for some reason the water level in the whole tub (including the drinking section) keeps on falling. Still, I am sanguine. You see, the non-drinking section of the tub owes water to the drinking section! In fact, I’ve been keeping track of how much. And when the day arrives when I start drinking more water than I pour in from bottles, I will simply dip water out of the non-drinking section and pour it into the drinking section. And then I will drink it. That way, I will satisfy all my drinking needs with the water saved up by the drinking section (in the form of IOU’s from the non-drinking section).

I only have just one tiny concern. If water from the non-drinking section is being used to pay off the drinking section (and then getting drunk), then whatever will I use to wash and clean?


Anonymous said...

What if instead of one person there are several people who use the tub.

Farmers who need to drink and corporatists who need to be clean for their 3 martini lunches. The farmer pool their water so that if one gets injured on the job he won't go thirsty in the future. The farmers know they're going to need more water in the future so they agree pour in extra now and to loan water to the corporatists with the promise of being paid back. They don't use the term IOU but rather "contract" or, perhaps, "Bond, backed by the full faith and credit" of the tub society.

So the farmers pour lots and lots of bottled water into the tub and the corporatists -- persuaded by a farmer-loving corporatist named Rubin -- initially decide to bathe a little less often and to put in plenty of water as well. The water level is rising

Then, a corporatist named George sees the the tub is getting full. Even knowing the in the future there will be a need an increased need for both bathing and drinking, he decides the corporatists should both stop putting so much water in and should take more water out. The farmers don't get to drink more (even the "farm subsidies" tend to benefit the corporatist friends of George). The water in the tub starts to go down.

George says, even the though the farmers are putting in plenty of water, there's a drinking water "crisis." He decides to break the water contract (even though it's backed by "full faith and credit") and says the farmers need to drink less. He also keeps talking about how the farmers need to stop pooling their water and must keep water for themselves -- though he knows this has no effect on the level of water in the tub. He refuses to put any more water in the tub and takes out more water for bathing than any leader in tub society history. He occassionally talks about cutting back on removing water but has plans to water a field in Mesopatamia that he doen't even include in his water budget.

If you were a farmer, what would you think of George?

Gil said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gil said...


If I were and honest farmer, I would be grateful to George for exposing the idiotic arrangement and encouraging a transition to a more stable system.

I would not want my children and grand-children forced to contribute more and more to an unstable scheme that relies on more victims, demographic fantasies, and voluntary repayment from an organization that doesn't produce any water of its own and must steal it from others who undoubtedly have better uses for their own hard-earned water than flushing it down a deteriorating system; uses that would do much more to increase and improve the over-all water supply for all.

It's perfectly possible to pool water resources to reduce risk in stable arrangements much more economically and honorably than this system.

Thank you, George!

Anonymous said...

those reasons you guys state are the very reasons why i'd feel more comfortable investing in real estate (i can't think of a metaphor for this one, thus i used 'multiple faucets') so that passive water flow from several faucets will fill my 'bathtub'.
And what is urinating? I don't know what that's alluding to.


Anonymous said...

i'm not grateful to george for watering mesopotamia without any justifiable cause not conserving water supply during drought. i don't appreciate him continuing to deplete the source and getting into water deficit.
and i'm not so sure that there is an imminent water 'crisis' -- it's too strong of a word (at least for now). so what do you suggest he do since you think it's such a great thing that george exposed the current arrangement?


Gil said...


I'm also unclear on what the urination aspect adds to the metaphor (other than being provocative). Is money from the general fund tainted in some way that renders it unsuitable for retirees?


I agree with you that George should waste much less money, both at home and abroad; but I think that's really a separate issue from whether or not changing the SS system is a good idea. If anything, realizing how many ways politicians (it's not just George, after all) can think of to waste money is another argument for protecting retirees from dependence on the grace of Congress.

I want George to help move us away from the SS system entirely, as quickly as is politically feasible, in a way that minimizes the injury to those who have become dependent on the current horrific system. Since I don't know what the limits of political feasibility are, it's possible that he's already doing just what I want him to (in this area).

Glen Whitman said...

The urination doesn't really represent anything important -- I just thought it was funny. Hey, no metaphor is perfect!

Blar said...

I thought that the urination thing was a joke, although suggestive of the way in which the great circle of money brings a fraction of money that is used for other purposes back to the government. I think that the biggest problem with the tub metaphor is that the total amount of water in your tub actually measures in the negative trillions of gallons.

My suggestion to you is to put your bottled water into some kind of sealed container, something that we we might call a "locked-jar". You really should have done this during the rainy season, before the drought, and before you drastically reduced the amount of other water that you were putting in. Can you believe that some of those silly people who encouraged you to turn down the water pressure in your faucet actually said that they wanted to make sure that the tub didn't overflow? Ahh, those were the days, when the possibility of tub overflow actually seemed like something worth discussing.

Glen Whitman said...

The issue of the negative gallons had occurred to me; I was thinking of including something in the story about how most of the water in the tub is borrowed, but I decided to skip that part.

Interestingly, Gore's ridiculed "lockbox" metaphor would actually be a nice symbol of the virtues of privatization, if only Gore hadn't already used it.

Blar said...

One thing that concerns me about this drive for privatization is that many of its advocates are using fuzzy math. Their assumptions about productivity and stock market growth don't seem to add up, and they don't give the massive government borrowing that privatization will necessitate its due. But I guess we'll have to wait until their actual proposal comes out to know for sure.

Anonymous said...

It's really disingenuous to talk about how the social security trust fund holds "IOUs" as if the IOUs under discussion are from your stoner nephew who can't hold down a job at Burger King. These are TREASURY BILLS -- promises from the U.S. government to pay money at some future time. Now, it's obviously true that those bills represent government debt. But it's equally true that the trust fund could turn these "IOUs" into cash tomorrow by selling them on the open market, just like any other T-bills. T-bills are assets just like any other.

Glen Whitman said...

Anonymous of 4:41pm -- that doesn't change anything. If the trust fund sold the T-bills to the public, then the government would owe the money to the public instead of to the trust fund. And the government would still have to come up with some source of revenue to pay up. The value of the T-bills results solely from the fact that the U.S. government has the ability to tax (and borrow from others) to pay off its debts.

To continue the metaphor, suppose that my Drinking-Water Trust Fund trades some of its IOUs to my neighbor, in return for some of my neighbor's bath water. The neighbor's bath water gets poured into my tub, increasing the water level. But now my neighbor has the IOUs, which means the non-drinking section of my tub owes water to my neighbor. To pay him off, my tub will have to increase its inflow of water from other sources.