If the economy were a good book, there would be a crisis one of these days.
The stock market would crash and stay crashed, or inflation would shoot up, or unemployment would soar.Things would get bad. But there would be a silver lining. Everybody would realize that something had to be done about the problems that caused the crisis.
The crisis would galvanize the country into action.
"Great crises produce great men and great deeds of courage," John F. Kennedy wrote in 1956 in "Profiles in Courage."
In a good book, the stock market crash on Oct. 19, 1987, would have been the perfect crisis to climax a tale of greed, short-sightedness and easy living.
Unfortunately, at least from a literary point of view, the recalcitrant economy kept chugging along and the moral of the story got lost.
The economy, it seems, is not a good book. It's kind of a bad book, actually.
Realizing this, some people who believe the economy really does have serious problems have stopped waiting for a crisis to galvanize the country into action.
These people are starting to say there may never be a crisis. Instead, they say, there could be gradual, imperceptible decay - what is sometimes known as "the British disease."
They're reaching for a literary device again to explain their ideas, but this time it's the metaphor.
"A failure to move quickly on the (federal budget) deficit doesn't necessarily mean a recession of the kind people like to write about," Paul Samuelson of Massachusetts Institute of Technology said in an interview this week in the Wall Street Journal.
"It's more like the radon problem in the basement of the new house I'm building," Samuelson said, coining a memorable phrase. "The clock is ticking all the time, but nothing big happens that you can suddenly write about in the Wall Street Journal."
Samuelson is not alone in the metaphor concoction business:
"It's like one more pack of cigarettes. It isn't a wolf at the door; it's termites in the basement," says Charles Schultze, a Brookings Institution scholar who is the former chairman of President Carter's Council of Economic Advisers.
Schultze is of two minds about the new metaphorical approach. He is not so sure, he said, that talk of cigarettes, radon and termites will galvanize the American public as effectively as a good, old-fashioned crisis would.
"The real tragedy of the budget deficit is it's never been a tragedy," Schultze said in an AP interview last week, using yet another literary device, the paradox.
The United States has in recent years become the world's largest debtor, obliging future generations to pay a fat chunk of the national income to foreigners in the form of rents, dividends and interest.