Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

What Is the Boiling Frog?

Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee. No frogs were harmed in taking this photo.

The boiling frog is a parable that illustrates an important lesson on how people, events, and a whole society can, by changing slowly over time, transform into something unrecognizable and previously inconceivable. The fable goes like this: if you put a frog directly into boiling water, it will jump right out of the pot…but if you put a frog in tepid water and turn up the heat slowly, it will stay in the water until it cooks to death.

Though the story is a bit grim (and not literally accurate as it pertains to frogs), it powerfully illustrates a theme that continually reoccurs when we look at how societies evolve and specifically how civilizations decay. It can often explain the use of phrases like “the new normal.”

And it illustrates an interesting question and a potential paradox: when you move along a continuous spectrum when does the situation change? If we think of one as a small number and one million as a large number, when we count from one to one million, at what point do we get to a large number?

“I’m the most compassionate on immigration!
“No, I am!”

The boiling frog principal can be applied to very specific issues, climate change perhaps being the most obvious one. Because we have failed to act against what seemed to be a slow-moving catastrophe it may be too late to mitigate dangerous consequences. In the political arena, the metaphor also applies to how the views of lawmakers and/or the public evolve, making current ones seem incredibly odd when juxtaposed with ones from not long ago.

Can you imagine how America’s founders would have viewed the current interpretation of the 2nd Amendment and the prevalence of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of laypeople? How would they have viewed the dominance of religion in today’s politics? Why are we still dealing with widespread prejudice over a century after nearly a million sacrificed their lives fighting over whether laws should apply equally to everyone? How many current-day Republicans would be shocked to watch Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush argue over who would be more compassionate toward immigrants in their 1980 presidential debate? Boiling examples abound.


In many ways the United States of America today is this boiling frog. And of course, there are many factors that have turned up the heat – from money in politics to social media – leading to a “dumbing down” of the dialog around important issues. Economics, in particular, is a complex field everyone seems to know a little about…but a little knowledge can be dangerous. And easily distorted, either out of ignorance, convenience, self-interest or a desire to amass political power.

These podcasts are a deeper dive into issues we frequently found ourselves discussing as we tried to apply our knowledge and experience of economics, psychology, history, science, and politics to the world we live in. We want to unpack why certain things work the way they do, and certain things don’t.

Because only by doing that can we truly have visibility into why America is boiling. And perhaps point out some ways to address our growing challenges more effectively.