Page last updated at 14:36 GMT, Friday, 21 August 2009 15:36 UK

The economy in recession is like...

Woman on London's Millennium Bridge

Michael Blastland

How best to describe what happens to the country when the economy hits the buffers? Michael Blastland wants your similes.

Sharpen your similes and complete the following sentence. The economy in recession is like...

No cliches please. We know already that many of you would describe it as a kick in the teeth, the last straw, a pain in the… and all that. But we're after something more descriptive of what happens to that great machine, or beast, the economy.

To give a sense of what we are looking for, I'll tell you mine and then you tell me yours, using the comments form below.

The Psychology of Recession is a Moneybox special on Radio 4 on Saturday, 22 August, at 1200 BST
Or listen again on the Moneybox website
Or download the podcast here

The economy in recession is like… The Millennium Bridge.

Weird, I know. And it's going to take some explaining, so here goes.

When it opened, the bridge over the River Thames was famously wobbly. First it began to sway slightly, then the wobble worsened and soon the crowds were taking ridiculously pronounced sideways steps, in chorus-line unison but quite unintentionally, as the bridge swayed alarmingly from side to side. Hilarious to watch, unnerving to be part of, the problem was seen initially a bit of a mystery.

Today - and here is why I like it as a simile - it is argued that the problem was as much the result of crowd dynamics as of the structure of the bridge itself.

Employees of engineering firm test the bridge
Testing for the wobble

Normally, the sideways force of everyone's steps would be expected, roughly, to cancel out. But for some reason, perhaps the fact that even in random movements there can be moments of coordination, or perhaps owing to a slight gust of wind, there was a small movement in the bridge itself, a few people took a step in unison to one side in reaction, and this compounded the movement back again. By now, the bridge is into a feedback effect - as wobble influences steps influence wobble, and the whole thing goes mad.

Human touch

Economies likewise are not only about structure. And they are potentially unstable in more ways than the bridge.

Beauty queens out splurging
Just as confidence begets confidence...

They depend both on the way that people react to each other's behaviour - like the steps and the wobble - but also on what they think other people will do, and even on what they think other people think.

Between cause and effect there is not a rigid set of levers, rods and pulleys which necessarily act in fixed relation to one another, so that a rise in interest rates here will produce a fall in inflation of a precise order there, or, I would argue, a given loss by the banks will produce a set fall in GDP.

Complicating all these relationships is the human factor, that between every lever, rod or cog in the economic machine is the sponge or elastic of human psychology.

The economist John Maynard Keynes said that financial markets could become a series of second guesses about other people's beliefs. The value of a share is not only what I think it's worth, but what I think someone else will think it's worth when I sell it on. Or even what I think someone else will think someone else thinks its worth.

Woman looking at closing down sale shoes
... the opposite is true

And in recession, if I run a business, my decision to hire or fire or invest is often a speculation on future business conditions, or on business confidence. If I think the future is rosy, I'll open that new shop. If I think orders will slump, I won't take on that new worker.

And my speculations will depend partly on what I think others think. Because if I think everyone else thinks we're in deep trouble, I expect them to rein in their spending, stop investing and hiring and, sure enough, we will be.

Some people dislike talk of psychology in economics because they suppose it to imply that the recession had no cause, as if bad things only happen because people think them so. It doesn't mean anything of the sort, it simply means that the cause can have a greater or lesser effect - within reason - depending how people react.

So, the Millennium Bridge. Like most similes, rusty around the edges, but not useless, nd a reminder of the human factor in economics.

A simile in this too?

If all this also reminds you of a Monty Python sketch in which the Prince of Wales was described, competitively, as like a big jam doughnut with cream on the top*, so much the better. We're inviting audacity.

Over to you.

*To quote the sketch, "I- I meant, Your Majesty, that, uh, like a doughnut your arrival gives us pleasure and your departure merely makes us hungry for more."

Below is a selection of your similes for the economy in recession.

The economy is like a car heading for the petrol station in the pouring rain with the fuel gauge on empty: it can't be trusted to last the course; skilled and careful driving may see it recover without things getting worse; but a careless driver who rushes for a quick solution may find a slow and miserable trudge is the result.
Jamie, Wendover, UK

The economy in recession is like... hiccups. It'll go away, but only once you forget about it.
MP, Essex like going up a down escalator. It's not going in the direction you want it to and seems like an impossible task. In order to get where you need to be you have to be two steps ahead of it at all times. But if you avoid distraction and stay focused you will get there in the end. Once you're on steady ground accept the fact that you wouldn't have been in such a predicament if you hadn't made a bad decision in the first place.
Kelly Sidkir, Tunbridge Wells, UK like riding a bicycle with stabilisers. When the day comes for the support to stop you're not sure if you'll be able to keep going.
Mark Dando, Sydney, Australia

The economy in recession is like an over-productive plum tree whose branches crack with the weight of fruit, spoiling some of it as the fungus strikes, and causing future crops to be in jeopardy, as it will take a few years for the tree to recover.
Marion Monahan, Bristol

The economy in recession is like... snow, you never know when it is coming, when it does you never know how deep it is going to be.
Mike Last, Poole, Dorset

The economy is like a crowded train. At each stop some people get on and others get off and everyone in the carriage must adjust their position in response to everyone else. Sometimes this works well and more people can fit in (like an economic boom), other times it works less well and less people can fit in (like an economic bust). Each person in the carriage is trading off the need to adjust to the others with the desire to win a little more space for themselves. Occasionally a large group with lots of luggage arrive and throws everything out of balance.
Robert Scarth, London

Running downhill. The sooner you try to take corrective action and slow down, the easier it is, but the less exhilarating the entire experience is. Only when you're already running too fast to stop without falling over do you realise there's a problem.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade

The whole banking system is like a layer of bubbles in bubble bath. When there are plenty of small bubbles, the whole layer is stable and lasts long without popping as the bubbles support each other's weight with little volume. However, when you get a few huge bubbles, they take up a large amount of volume (debt) and can look exciting and impressive, but due to the weight of the air, can burst quickly and unpredictably. A huge amount of volume is lost very quickly, just like losing a whole amount of credit in one go.
Ariel, London

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