Economy and Society

Skin in the Game

This is the first post by Michael Corey of a two-part series on the use of the phrase “skin in the game.” -Jeff

‘Skin in the game’ is a widely used and imperfect aphorism of uncertain origins. The political meanings of the phrase have been used by all sides in political debates, and each side seeks to appropriate its meaning to connect with people on an informal level. The political application is relatively new compared to its application in business, finance, betting and war. ‘Skin in the game’ has become part of the rhetoric in debates on taxes, deficits and entitlements, and its use is likely to increase as the debates heat up.

‘Game’ is a metaphor for actions of all types, and ‘skin’ is a metaphor for being committed to something through emotional, financial, or bodily commitment. Skin is also a synecdoche representing the whole being. Taken together the phrase implies taking risk and being invested in achieving an outcome. The late columnist William Safire sought the origin of the phrase and didn’t resolve the issue, but he did dispel one widely held explanation. It was not the billionaire investor Warren Buffett who coined the phrase. Buffett likes executives in companies in which he invests to also have their funds, or their skin, invested in the firm. Safire learned from a money and investment specialist that the expression is much used to “convey financial risk in any kind of venture, but you could stretch it to mean some kind of emotional investment. Can you have skin in the game of your marriage? Well, you ought to.”

Ever since humans first walked the earth, our skins have been in the game as hunters, gatherers and cultivators. Over time, animal skins were used for trade and as currencies. For instance, buckskins were monetized, giving us our current buck and the use of the word skin as slang for money. The aphorism has been widely used in informal everyday language and increasingly has become popular in political speech. Safire observed in his New York Times column that ‘skin in the game’ has penetrated the U. S. Senate Chamber. He quoted Senator Tom Coburn in his advocacy for healthcare spending accounts as saying, “H.S.A.’s give consumers some ‘skin in the game’ by putting them in charge of health-care dollars.” When interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, President Elect Barack Obama explained that a long-term fix for the economy would demand sacrifices from all Americans, “Everybody’s going to have to give. Everybody’s going to have some skin in the game.” And the Republican Representative David Camp is on the books as saying, “I believe you’ve got to have some responsibility for the government you have. People have co-payments under Medicare, and everyone should have some ‘skin in the game’ under the income tax system.”

Democrats tend to say that the wealthy aren’t paying enough taxes, and Republicans frequently lament that around 45 percent of all households pay no federal income taxes. Similar arguments are applied to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public pension and retirement programs. Democrats seek to preserve these programs without making major changes to them, and Republicans insist that to preserve these programs, substantial changes are needed, and more skin needs to be put into the game. These opposing views will dominate public policy discussions through the 2012 elections and beyond. Ultimately, public policy will resolve whose skin should be in the game, and how much of it should be committed.

Evidence for penetration of ‘skin in the game’ into everyday language is abundant. When googled, the phrase pops up 13,200,000 times on the web; there are 615,000 finds in images; 3,360 in books; 283 in news, etcetera. By focusing on a micro aspect of an issue, it is possible to access issues from another perspective. I would encourage you to explore the Web and The New York Times archives. It is another way to use a micro approach to gain perspective on macro issues. It taught me that Democratic Senator Warner has a skin in the game approach when developing a solution to bring down the US deficit: “there’s no option but to push ahead. A way forward won’t be found unless there’s a grand enough bargain that everybody feels they’ve got some skin (in) the game. And also on the world stage there is skin to be put in the game. When discussing U.S. military action in Libya and the need for United Nations authorization and involvement from neighboring countries, a senior administration official noted that, “It’s not enough for them to just cheer us on. They have to put some skin in the game. The president has made clear it can’t just be us.”

If invoking the phrase wasn’t effective, I don’ think it would have migrated into so many aspects of our lives. I doubt that it would have shifted from personal and interpersonal micro concerns to collective and macro issues. ‘Putting skin in the game’ touches us on an elemental level and reaches beyond reason. It is this characteristic that makes it attractive for political rhetoric for those promoting shared sacrifices, and others seeking personal investment in solutions. The next time you hear the expression, you might want to stop and ask: what is being asked by whom, and for what purposes?

  • Andrew

    It seems to me we also use vernacular to simplify concepts. We use “skin in the game” to describe a level of commitment, instead of describing in detail all of the different ways NATO allies could or should project force in a situation such as Libya. Another expression comes to mind, which I know I use – “it is what is” – which we hear in business, sports, and I suspect government. Perhaps through these expressions we are able to be clear, direct, uncomplicated and relatable. There is also a no-nonsense quality to some of these expressions, which I suspect people find appealing. I suppose the question is, when we use these expressions, what are we trying to say and are we really being clear?

    - Andrew

  • Michael Corey

    That’s an interesting question. When a phrase is being adapted into different types of speech (for instance, into political from business or sports); the meaning may not be shared. During this transition, alternative sides may try to approapriate meanings that fit their own purposes. This is not uncommon is transition periods until the meaning is ultimately taken for granted in everyday life. During transitionary periods, agreements may be illusionary. In my opinion, asking “says who” (a question I first borrowed from Berger and Luckmann), may help peek behind what is said and help reveal what is meant.