Economy 4.0

Too Big To Fail is Too Hard To Resist

Amanda Aronczyk Apr 5, 2011

HBO has just released a preview for Too Big To Fail, a film based on the Andrew Ross Sorkin book of (of course) the same name.


Quick editing, wide-angle shots of the New York Stock Exchange, zingy and dramatic music, then: Too Big To Fail (in a sans serif font; there’s no messing around Wall Street with anything frilly). Why haven’t we tired of that phrase? Why is everything still either Too Big To Fail or some variation on that theme?

Too Big To Save? The U.S. Financial System.

Too Big to Sue? WalMart (or not too big to sue, depending on who you ask.

Too Big To Bail? Spain, pre-earthquake Japan, or the US government. Again, depends who you ask.

And what about Too Big To Sail? Why, super-yachts, of course.

So what is about Too Big To Fail that makes it so irresistible?

“I think that when people are using it they’re almost using it in a prayerful way,” says lexicographer and former editor of the New Oxford American Dictionary, Erin McKean. “If they say ‘too big to fail’ often enough it might become true. It’s almost an incantation.”

McKean thinks that part of the charm of Too Big To Fail is that it’s counter intuitive; we don’t necessary consider big things to be all that stable.

“We’re holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously in a marvelous feat of cognitive dissonance,” she explains. “We think that ‘Oh, well, size conveys an advantage,’ supposedly. But then also we have lots of examples of things where being too big is a disadvantage.”

Take David and Goliath, she offers, or the idiom “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” — we love seeing the big guy fall, or fail. Too Big To Fail is inherently wobbly.

“When somebody says, ‘Oh well, it’s too big to fail,” she continues, “then it’s kind of a nod and wink meaning they’re going to come crashing down soon.”

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.