Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Phrase of the Day: “sunk cost fallacy”

Today’s WaPo offers an instructive application of a notion we previously examined under the headline “fuite en avant”:  namely, the sunk cost fallacy:

The sunk cost fallacy can be disastrous. World War I and the Vietnam War were examples of nations falling for the error, with combatants doubling down on failed strategies, in part because they had already invested so much, making decisions based on what had happened in the past rather than solely on the costs and benefits for the future.

The author, Neil Irwin, draws the relevant analogy with the current behavior of the House Repo’s (as we shall dub them).

Another pertinent comparison would be with the currently crucial phrase raising the debt ceiling.   The general public may be excused for imagining that this means “increasing future deficit-spending”, whereas all that is legally driving it is the obligation to service debts already incurred by past action;  it would spare us much ire and confusion  were we to denominate the process, not “raising the debt ceiling”, but “honoring our debts”.

Herewith our original post on the concept in general and its vocabulary.

Phrase of the Day:  “fuite en avant”
[original postdate 24 VI 2012]

A trenchant phrase of subtle use.  (Pronounced, roughly:  FWEET on ah-VAHN.)   Literally, “fleeing forwards”, which of course we never say.

The usually excellent Oxford-Hachette dictionary  rather muffs this one, defining it only as “headlong rush” (Note to the unsuspecting public:  the phrase is never applied to Pamplona bulls, nor a bottom-of-the-ninth audience rushing for the exits).  The large Collins-Robert is somewhat better in giving a concrete use: “la fuite en avant du gouvernement dans le domaine économique: the government’s relentless [dbj: “dogged” would have been better] pursuit of the same economic policy  in spite of all the evidence.”  Google it on the internet, and you get (from a source that is not quite clear) “course effrénée vers l'inconnu, même au risque d'erreurs importantes”, which ably covers part of it.

The most recent use of the phrase I have heard, came half an hour ago, in a Medi1 broadcast concerning Syria’s downing of a Turkish jet.   Turkey had indignantly called upon the NATO military alliance (hey cool!  yet another Mideast war!!):  yet neither side, said the newscast,  in their heart of hearts  desired a fuite en avant:  which in this context could be translated “(pointless/knee-jerk) escalation”.

The phrase is important because, concise and stereotyped, it denotes a certain psychopolitical pathology, and thus -- lying ready-to-hand in our Wortschatz -- actually helps us recognize cases thereof  when they arise.   (This notion is explored at greater length in the chaper “The Stokes Conjecture”, in The Semantics of Form in Arabic.) The basic idea is:  “Well okay, that didn’t work;  but maybe if we do the same thing again only more of it/faster/harder, it’ll work this time.”  (This cantilevered emotion, common among politicians, is believed to be controlled by the pineal gland.)

In its strictest use -- literally ‘flight forward’, and not merely ‘soldiering on’ -- the term tightens the stakes a notch, over mere pointless perseverence, mere more-of-the-same -- the sunk funds fallacy, a.k.a. “throwing good money after bad”.  For in the French phrase, you actually up the ante, hoping  not only to win this hand, but to make up for previous losses.

Fuite en avant has long been one of my favorite phrases, in large part because of its complex meaning, and its lack of an equivalent in English.  But later a new term spread generally throughout our American tongue, one which, while not an exact equivalent, still covers important shared territory:  doubling-down.
The metaphor comes from the world of gambling;  and accordingly, in a country which reverenced Maverick, and which could seriously consider a casino magnate (whose name shall not stain this page, but which rhymes with dump and rump and frump) as a candidate for President, retains a certain roguish allure.  Doubling-down may not be a winning formula, but it leaves open the possibility that the cards are hot tonight;  whereas fuite en avant always designates an unwise and even foolhardy move.

Note:  Doubling one’s wager, when raised from a nonce impulse into a betting strategy, is known (in French, and thence in English) as the martingale.   This bright idea is probably rediscovered by every boy in each generation;  he is chagrined, later to learn, that the policy is statistically unsound.
In French, this term is again used figuratively, as:

La martingale à haut risque de Mitt Romney
En choisissant le moine-soldat Paul Ryan comme colistier, le candidat républicain a l'élection présidentielle américaine vient de faire un sacré pari.

Pour d’autres friandises
de la confiserie 
du docteur Justice,

A related and subtle word, also with its origins in the world of wager, is surenchère.  As:

Mariage homo: la surenchère du PS
Les députés socialistes veulent inclure la procréation médicalement assistée (PMA) dans le texte

Here the French Parti socialiste (which in reality is not so much socialist as bobo -- bourgeois-bohemian) ups the ante:  Not only do they wish to join inverts in a parody of matrimony, but to insure that those whom Nature has expressly made, not to procreate, may yet  by artificial means  pass down their defective genes.  (An apter phrase might thus be fuite en pentefuite en enfer.)

~ Recommendation posthume ~
“Si j’étais encore en vie, et que je  désirais un bon whodunnit,
que lirais-je?"
Micmacs divorce --Pouah!
(Je suis Charles de Gaulle, et j’ai approuvé ce message)

A milder counterpart of doubling-down is soldiering on;  its slogan, “Hope springs eternal”.  As, Christopher Robin’s toy train with its “string sort of thing”:

            It’s a good sort of brake
            but it hasn’t worked yet.

Also distantly related:  a Hail Mary (in football).  Related, because desperate and flashy; but, distantly, because, unlike the case of fuite en avant or doubling down, losing a Hail Mary play is no worse (does not impact your score) than losing a more conservative final play.   Given the rules of football, a swansong hail-Mary is entirely rational.

And:  bet your bottom dollar; go for broke.


A classic example of an unstable and self-defeating fuite  is the song about the “Little Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly”, for reasons left unspecified.  To get at the fly, she then deliberately swallowed a spider, which “wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her”; so to get rid of that, she swallowed a bird;  then a cat; then a dog; then a cow;  and finally a horse:  whereupon the song abruptly ends (on a rhyme:  “she died, of course”).
*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *
In his brilliantly-written book, Liar’s Poker (1989), Michael Lewis describes (p. 218)  the S&L crisis as of 1981, and the decision to go for broke:  “The U.S. Congress decided to let the savings and loans try to speculate their way out of trouble.”  (Speculation, of course, having been the way they got into this pickle in the first place.)

No comments:

Post a Comment