Unhelpful Metaphor of the Day, Poker Edition

March 27, 2009

Here’s how Gerald Seib leads his WSJ column today:

In poker, there’s a maneuver called "all-in," in which a player pushes all his chips to the center of the table in one big bet.
By that standard, President Barack Obama is conducting an all-in presidency.

He might have gotten the idea from Peter Nicholas, who says that Obama is "going all in, in poker terms". Or Deborah McAdams, who says that "in poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone ‘all in’". Or Mike Larson, who writes that "The Federal Reserve has done it now. In poker terms, it’s gone ‘all in’". Or Bob Pinzler, with a column on the economic crisis which uses "Going ‘all in’" as a headline. Or Tim Reid, whose headline is "Barack Obama bets the farm in $4 trillion poker game". Etc etc.

Can we please retire this stunningly unhelpful meme? For one thing, it’s responsible for altogether far too many scare quotes appearing in the mainstream media. And more to the point, the metaphor breaks down on a moment’s reflection. Seib explains:

The budget attempts to launch at the outset most of the big policy initiatives the president has in mind for his term. It has money for a new health plan, envisions a cap-and-trade system for limiting so-called greenhouse gases, invests big money in alternative energy, and continues the flow of dollars into education started in the economic-stimulus package…
The Obama team could have made another choice; it could have been incremental, seeding in some items now, while promising to launch others over time.

Seib’s basically saying here that all of Obama’s big policy ideas are in the budget. But that’s not what going all-in means, in poker. At the card table, going all-in means that you can’t be bluffed or negotiated with: it’s a bullying take-it-or-leave-it proposition. It also holds out the possibility that you can multiply your wealth at a stroke. It’s the opposite of the long hard slog of grinding it out: it’s a big and flashy gamble which leaves no room for strategy or even tactics. And while there are occasional government actions which might come close to fitting that bill — Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, perhaps — presenting a budget to Congress simply isn’t one of them. Sorry.

Reprinted from Portfolio.com

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