July 10, 2009 1 Comment
After all, who could be against “stimulating” the economy? What, you want to depress the economy?
It’s like “campaign finance reform”. Who could be against it? You don’t want to reform campaign finance?
Almost all our political debates, when you think about it, are plagued by these problems of propagandistic, biased, screwy, or otherwise misleading terminology: health care reform (“single payer”), Middle East relations (“the Muslim World”), the climate (“climate change”), etc.
I guess that having become so disillusioned with politics that I don’t believe any of it anymore, and with an administration whose foreign policy I expect to accomplish nothing good whatsoever, it’s only natural that this has become my latest pet peeve: terminology and how it influences (and in some cases, biases unrecoverably) our debates.
Here’s a more controversial example: “recession”. Everyone knows that we’re “in a recession” right now, right?
Well hold on. What’s a “recession”? Is a “recession” a real, tangible, objective, physical phenomenon? No. It’s just a label we’ve made up to slap onto certain economic states of affairs. It has a definition. The economy meets that definition, so we’re “in a recession”, something that all sorts of smart people have thought it terribly important to take note of. Or when it’s not “a recession”, people start to prognosticate and wonder whether we are, or will be. People actually get in fights about it. That’s how important some people think this label is.
But I disagree. Yes, sure it’s important & noteworthy that the unemployment rate (say) is going up, and all sorts of related economic facts – things that can be measured – are bad. But that would be important whether or not we called it “a recession”. (Would this unemployment rate be ok if it weren’t “a recession”? No!)
These labels we have – “recession”, “depression” – are stupid and screw up peoples’ thinking.
For example, once people become convinced “there’s a recession”, they are suddenly easy to convince to throw all the rules of common sense out the window. In ordinary times, of course, the idea of government spending 800 kabillion dollars it doesn’t have on unspecified pork would be seen for what it is. But last fall, most of the country clearly got freaked out of their minds by so much talk about “the recession” that they said “Sure, go ahead! After all, there’s a recession on! So we should do it!”
As an analogy suppose I studied crime statistics with my free time, and I invented some term, let’s say ‘Alpha-Wave Crime Pattern’ (AWCP). I make a definition for what an ‘Alpha-Wave Crime Pattern’ is, and write it down. (Let’s say it’s: three consecutive quarters of violent-crime increase in at least 70% of the top 15 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs), along with a jump of at least 15% in mortgage defaults for in quarter #2 of those 3; doesn’t really matter. The point is it’s just some criteria I pull out of my butt and call the ‘definition’ of an AWCP.) Then I set up an Organization dedicated to measuring these crime statistics, and when an AWCP is reached, I make a big grandiose press conference and announce my Official declaration that the crime situation is now, Officially, an AWCP.
So far so good?
Actually, so far, you wouldn’t care. Big deal. Let me make my announcement. But what if there were all these pseudoscientific theories about what AWCP’s meant? Like, everyone who went to college had to study the definition of AWCP’s, and historical examples of AWCP’s, and thus anytime we near the onset of an AWCP (again: a term I made up), people started to get nervous? And ask each other “do you think an AWCP is coming?”, and get in arguments over whether we ‘really’ are or aren’t in an AWCP?
Start to seem silly yet? Well I’m not finished. Now ordinarily there are certain things we all take for granted about crime and crime-fighting:
-people are innocent until proven guilty.
-trial by peers.
Now, suppose that an ‘AWCP’ came along – an Official AWCP, you see – and suddenly a bunch of opportunistic politicians and ideologues started shrieking: “Don’t you understand? We can’t afford to stick with your arcane rules at such a time as this! There’s an Alpha-Wave on you heartless bastard!“
And then they rushed through a giant “alpha-wave-fighting” bill through Congress, a bill that none of them read, which
-suspends habeas corpus.
-bypasses criminal trials.
-changes burden of proof to the defendant.
“Because there’s an Alpha-Wave! Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures!”
This whole example seems silly but as a matter of fact it’s exactly what has happened to us in the past 9 months. Just replace “crime” with “economy”, “Alpha-Wave” with “recession”, and “alpha-wave-fighter” with “stimulus”.
Back to reality, here’s a real term people use that, in my view, isn’t actually all that different from “recession”: “three black crows”. You don’t know what “three black crows” is? Why, it’s a term in ‘technical analysis’ of stock trading, a somewhat maligned and goofy but persistent art that involves studying stock graphs to (supposedly) find patterns that can be used for profitable trading. You can read about “three black crows” here. Like “recession”, you see, it’s a human-made-up term that has a definition, and at any given time a stock’s chart will either display a “three black crows” pattern or it won’t.
Now then, I think it’s perfectly clear that when a stock is “in a three black crows pattern”, everyone understands that however meaningful the underlying movements might be, calling it something like “three black crows” is an arbitrary label that people have attached to the stock price. It’s not some sort of law of nature that when a stock gets into a ‘three black crows’ state, that such-and-such will happen. There is no such law. Yes there are stock traders who might think so, but those are conjectures, or perhaps one should say hunches, or hopes, and they may or may not be right – and make or lose a ton of money – at any given time. God be with them.
But certainly if the US President ever began a sentence with, “My fellow Americans, the stock market is in a Three Black Crows pattern, which means [A, B, C], and therefore we need to [X, Y, Z]“, you’d think he was a superstitious lunatic who should keep his chart-reading theories to himself, and perhaps even be more than a little freaked out.
But for some reason he can say “My fellow Americans, the economy is in A Recession, and therefore we need to spend 800 billion dollars we don’t have on whatever-the-hell we can think of”, everyone nods their heads at the wise caring sage. He sure knows what he’s talking about! That’s Keynesian!
Look. The economy is bad, there’s no doubt about that. And to the extent that government can fix it, it should try to do so. But the things done to fix it should make sense on their own terms, from first principles, with real arguments, and not due to barely-better-than-superstitious theories based on these labels we have – “recession”, “stimulus” – which are not helping. Indeed they bypass actual human thought.
I spit on these made-up labels. People who attach too much meaning to them are morons.