Metaphors bloom all around us as Spring approaches. It occurs to me how frequently gardening and agricultural images spring up in the language of business. Just the other day I read a headline on the Wall Street Journal site that Berkshire Hathaway and partners will “Plow $4 Billion into Copper Mines.” Keep your hand on that plow, Mr. Buffett!
Other examples abound. One’s profession is one’s “field.” We call factories “plants;” startup capital is “seed money,” and corporate expansion is “growth.” A risk-taking investment outfit is a “hedge fund.” Indeed, the terms “market” and “stocks” are of agricultural origin. (The great English novelist Muriel Spark amusingly describes the emergence of these terms in The Takeover, a comic novel about a 1970s Diana goddess cult.)
Symbols and metaphors function as psychic shorthand. We bundle ideas and emotions into a single message that’s instantly processed by its audience. Symbols skip past the brain’s sentries of logic and analysis, and once lodged in the brain, are hard to displace.
Recently we have seen how popular symbols can catch on, quickly outgrow their usefulness, and become catalysts of misunderstanding. Now, in the spirit of spring and renewal, I’d like to clear away the debris of two worn-out, bone-dry metaphors, and propose fresh new ones to take their place.
Over the last six months, “Wall Street” has snowballed into a catchall term encompassing the stock market, banking, hedge funds, speculators, venture capital, the Federal Reserve and your ATM. So inflated is this unit of cultural currency, it’s next to worthless. As Sam Goldwyn said of oral contracts: it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.
Then there’s “Main Street”—enshrined as the hometown antidote to Wall Street. Here’s another metaphor that now rings hollow, its glory days as a vibrant symbol for local economies long past. The main drag is … a drag. Cruise down a town’s Main Street nowadays and you might find a bank and a few retail stores, often branches of large national chains—hardly a proud showcase for local commerce.
The true address for American commerce is not Main Street, but just around the corner, on the Great American Side Street. For it is in corporate parks and office buildings located on Side Street U.S.A. where the business of the country’s business is percolating.
Side Street is home to startups, entrepreneurs, inventors, and emerging businesses. Suburban garages located on side streets have been the incubator of our greatest corporate success stories, including HP, Apple, Amazon and Google.
I champion the “Side Streets” because they best represent the diversity—in kind, size, shape and location—of American businesses. Business in the U.S. doesn’t fit into a cubbyhole called Wall Street or Main Street: it’s ecologically decentralized.
As for Wall Street, the term has become a platitude, wrapped in a stereotype, inside a cliché. It is a metaphorical dead-end street—the furthest thing from a true representation of the American marketplace.
To better convey the country’s true market, let’s put Wall Street’s bulls and bears out to pasture. I propose we reach back into the garden of metaphors and look for one that fits. Why there it is! The garden itself!
The Great American Garden is comprised of tens of thousands of retailers, small and large manufacturers, service companies and producers of raw materials. They vary as gloriously as plants in sophisticated botanical gardens. Our dazzling array of businesses is spread across the land, each inflected as well as nurtured by its unique region, climate and local culture—much like garden plants. The fruits of this national garden comprise the country’s vast and varied marketplace. Let’s put the “eco” back in “economy”.
As the first day of spring approaches, let’s also note the signs of promise and prosperity that are all around us. Too often our use of outmoded symbols blinds us to fresh and positive developments.
Look at the cities of Seattle, San Jose, Chicago and Houston; all are booming—and blooming—with stable property values and high job growth. Why pundits keep overlooking these national success stories I can only ascribe to spring fever.
So, how do you get to the Great American Garden? Simple. Take a Side Street.