In late November, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told the Big Three automakers that they needed to devise a better financial aid plan than the one they had presented to Congress, saying that any decision was going to be postponed until they did. “Yes, we’re kicking the can down the road, because that will give us the opportunity to do something positive,” Reid said.

A couple of weeks later, after the House approved a new plan that Senate Democrats seem to support, another foot kicked. Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said the plan was offered by an administration that “basically wants to kick the can down the road and let some other administration and some other Congress deal with this issue.”

The image stuck. As the bill worked its way out of the Congress and into the White House, print and broadcast commentators discussed how any help was just “kicking the can” down the road.

The expression conjures several different images. One is a child’s game, either a version of hide and seek where people try to “kick the can” before they’re tagged, or one where a can is kicked around among a group of people. “Kicking the can” can also refer to dying, though the more common expression involves a bucket instead of a can. In neither case, though, does the can get kicked down the road. Instead, think of a bored young boy on a hot summer’s day, walking down a dusty road and discovering an empty tin can. He then kicks it down the road, continues walking, then kicks again when he gets to the can. The image suggests that he’s avoiding chores, or some other unpleasant task. So “kicking the can” down the road simply delays having to deal with the important matter.

That’s what people are saying about the proposed financial aid for automakers: Given the fundamental problems in the industry, any triage is just avoiding or delaying the inevitable—either a fundamental reorganization of the industry or a more permanent financial plan. It’s all just “kicking the can” down the road. Or, it could be that the can is being kicked to someone else to deal with it, like passing the buck.

Of course, there’s always the chance that “kicking the can” long enough can result in one or more of the automakers “kicking the bucket.” But that’s another kettle of fish.

 

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years.