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What is a House of Cards?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 October 2016
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A house of cards is a flimsy structure that looks like it has the stability to retain its shape. However a puff of air, a knock on the cards, or even a shift of the table on which the cards sit tends to bring down the entire structure. Today, anything that has outward stability but the chance of complete or almost total collapse, based on the falling down of one part, may be viewed as a house of cards.

John Milton, who coined the phrase, initially meant not only to highlight the structural defects of a house of cards but also perhaps to the pagan nature of playing cards. In many parts of the world during Milton’s time, playing cards was viewed as evil. Thus the house of cards was not only structurally unstable but also morally unsound. His prediction of its destruction was as religious as it was practical. In fact, Milton’s use may relate back to biblical parables where Jesus discusses houses built on no foundation.

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Building card houses can be an entertaining activity, and there are several ways to do this. The way each house is built relates back to the phrase. Each card depends on the placement of other cards in order to remain standing. Milton is certainly not the only one to note the flimsiness of these paper homes. There’s a memorable Brady Bunch episode where the children attempt to build a card house to determine who gets to spend their expiring collectible stamps. As with any house of cards, the Brady kids’ structure can only be built so high prior to it falling down.

In the modern sense, few people view playing cards as an evil, but the phrase may still be applied to systems where each part is dependent on others for stability. It’s easy to see this in action when looking at the downfall of the US economy in the late 2000s. It could be called a house of cards, because as one part fell, other parts fell too.

A brief example of the card house US economy could be something like the following:
1. Subprime loans created high foreclosure amounts
2. High foreclosure amounts resulted in reduced housing prices and a glut of available homes on the market.
3. Inability to collect taxes from these empty homes meant states had to cut budgets.
4. Higher mortgage that were upside down resulted in less consumer spending at the same time.
5. Both low tax collection and lowered spending lead to fewer jobs.
6. Fewer jobs meant people couldn’t buy houses.

It’s easy to see the dependency of one system on another. If one falls, all may fall. The phrase house of cards may also be used to assess the strength of businesses or organizations. Those with flimsy structures may be deemed card houses because they’re likely to fall down.

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