Bad Medicine for Rabies, a Hangover—or a Recession

One of the great pleasures of listening to NPR is hearing stories about subjects you’re not naturally interested in and wouldn’t have listened to if changing the station hadn’t seemed like too much trouble.  One such unexpected pleasure was an All Things Considered feature on a book called Rabid: A Cultural History of the World’s Most Diabolical Virus, Rabies.

The thing that caught my attention was its etymology of the phrase “the hair of the dog that bit you,” the idea that the best cure for a hangover is a drink of whatever made you drunk. The phrase dates back to the first century A.D., when Pliny the Elder identified burning some hair from the dog that inflicted the bite and rubbing the burnt hair in the wound as a treatment for rabies.

Hair of the dog is a dubious remedy for either rabies or hangovers.  It’s an even worse economic remedy.  Yet it’s a reasonably fair distillation of the Republican remedy for our economic hangover: more of what plunged us into the recession in the first place: less regulation, and less spending to help the victims of de-regulation.

The “hair of the dog” metaphor captures the meretriciousness of the conservatives’ economic nostrums. But it does not do justice to the outrageousness of the role they have played and their aspirations to reestablish control of economic policy.

For that, imagine a piece of property, a wood-frame house on a heavily wooded lot, publicly owned, but leased out.  On such a property, the risk of fire is ever-present.  But a succession of lessees deems the risk of small and manageable.  They refuse to build firebreaks, gaps in trees and other vegetation that would block a spreading fire.  They heat the house with open fires.  They light it with open candles.  And they disable the fire alarms and sprinklers.

Just before the lease is due to expire, fire breaks out, the worst in decades, fierce enough to jeopardize the house’s structural integrity.  When the lease term expires, the owners lease the property to a new tenant, who pledges to extinguish the fires, build the firebreaks, convert to electric heat and light, and install a sprinkler system.

The new tenant sets about containing the fire, resolutely, if perhaps not as aggressively as he might.  But the blaze is stubborn and resists being extinguished.  And the old tenants linger around the property, interfering with the fire fighters and hoses, and tying the work up with meritless law suits.  But at length, the fire is brought under control, and much more slowly than expected, rebuilding begins.  The fire-prevention measures are implemented.

But before anybody knows it, the lease is again up for renewal.  The old tenants bid to be restored.  They point to the slow rebuilding as evidence that what has been tried—measures they have resisted as fiercely as the Soviets at the battle of Stalingrad—hasn’t worked.  Disconnect the sprinklers, they say.  Build the fires.  Light the candles.

The owner is torn.  The rebuilding has been slow.  The tenant hasn’t been as sure-handed as had been hoped.  Maybe there is a better way.

But return the property to the people whose recklessness caused the fire in the first place?  People who still think they were right and promise to revert to their old ways?

It seems crazy.


  1. Linda Christenson
    July 27th, 2012 | 6:38 am

    Louis, how simply but clearly your metaphor says it! The whole picture is unthinkable and downright laughable if it weren’t so serious. I’m no policy wonk and as you may remember from our film production period, not terribly confident about expressing myself when I should. But now I have your image clearly fixed in my mind as a way to articulate this farce. Thank you!
    p.s. Eric is going to share this with a bunch of people.

  2. Jay
    July 27th, 2012 | 7:02 am

    This is the thought that permeates my thinking. Would I re-hire an employee who failed during their prior employment. Of course not, particularly when they admit to NOT changing their style or methods.

  3. Gail
    July 28th, 2012 | 3:42 pm

    Brilliant analogy — and perfect to share with “on-the-fencers” and fiscal moderates whose minds remain partially open to dialogue. Thanks, Louis!

Leave a reply