“A recession by any other name would sting as strong.”
Eh. Too overused. *Checks aide-mémoire.* Ah! The modern-day Bard of Avon. This will make me sound learned and sophisticated.
“Giving new meanings to words is how systems lie to themselves.” —Tom Stoppard
That quote—which I painstakingly dug up for its applicability to our current dilemma, you’re very welcome—comes from Stoppard’s anti-communist play “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” But I can’t find a more fitting description of the Biden Administration’s latest act of verbicide. And I ain’t talking ‘bout “birthing people.”
We’re in a “recession.” That seems obvious. Obvious to anyone without a trust fund or the last name Pelosi, that is. From gas prices, to the stock market, to 401k holdings, to interest rates, to trying to check out quickly at Walmart but being waylaid with only one self-checkout kiosk open, it’s clear the economy isn’t running at full tilt.
The economy has clearly recessed. But the Biden Admin. apparatchiks are assuring America all is well, to not believe our lying eyes and even more lyinger Econ 101 textbook. In an anonymously written blog post at whitehouse.gov, some poor intern—or Ronald Klain himself—wends in so many weasel words about how we aren’t really in a recession despite the traditional definition. “What is a recession?” our secret scribe asks. “While some maintain that two consecutive quarters of falling real GDP constitute a recession, that is neither the official definition nor the way economists evaluate the state of the business cycle.”
You see, it’s those dastardly, indefinite “some” who have tricked you with imprecise econ idiom! And who constitutes these conniving “some”? Well, just about every mainstream economic observer of the past fifty years. But forget those experts—you need to trust the actual experts. Place your unerring faith in whom the White House calls the “official recession scorekeeper.”
The National Bureau of Economic Research is ACHKTUALLY the government-sanctioned designator of recessions. Accept no substitutes! Within the NBER is the thrillingly named Business Cycle Dating Committee, the official-official commerce conclave that slaps the big r-tag on our sputtering economy. And while the econ-schmucks of CNBC and the Wall Street Journal editorial page still go by the outmoded two-season-shrink definition of recessions, the “sophists, economists, calculators” of the BCDC of the NBER take GDP growth, along with other indicators like UI growth and PPI fluctuations, and with the USA’s stamp of approval, tell us if we’re truly in a slump.
Got it, acronyms and all? Because if you don’t, Biden’s batmen in the media are happy to enlighten. The White House’s web post newspeaking the definition of recession was a sending up of the bat signal—silhouetting the sagging, liver-spotted mien of the president, mouth a-gawp and aglow—calling for editorial reinforcement. Come the press cavalry did.
“The economy shrinking for two consecutive quarters would meet a longstanding assumption for when a recession has begun,” the
Apparat Associated Press hedgingly tweeted. “But with the U.S. adding 2.7 million jobs over those same six months, economists say that wouldn’t mean a recession has started.” Notice the vague “economists” doing the epistemological correction, while nobody is making the “longstanding assumption.” The AP once defined the recession as “two consecutive quarters of negative growth,” so perhaps its copy-editor is at fault.
CNN correspondent and Biden groupie John Harwood has been running Twitter cover for the administration, adopting the new recession parlance, despite using the traditional definition three years prior. Reuters performed the same shameless volte-face, repeating the White House’s line after years of claiming otherwise. Politico’s Ben White sang the same “it’s complicated” tune when he cited the bi-quarter-fall recession definition not four months ago.
Everyone’s favorite donkey court economist, Paul Krugman, dutifully manned the tongue trenches. “Ignore the two-quarter rule,” he tweet-ordered. “We might have a recession, but we aren’t in one now” Krugman’s infamous penchant for improvidence is, Nobel notwithstanding, unmatched. He predicted a Biden boom, a Trump downturn, low inflation, the GOP fascistic takeover of America, and, of course, the failure of the internet. Putting all your chips on MAGA red that Krugman might fluff another market prognosis will probably bring modest winnings—or at least bus fare home from the Bellagio.
What’s the deal with all these definitional games? What is economic news now, a check-your-pronoun lit-crit seminar? Does the recession diachronic dance mean anything for the GED-holder trying to get a better job than McDonald’s fry associate?
The White House deliberately obscuring recession’s etymology is obvious headline-hygiene. But the Administration’s message massagers have a point about cut-and-dry economic analysis. The word “recession” is measured by calculating gross domestic product growth, which is itself an overly reductive measure of “the economy.” As Murray Rothbard pointed out, marketplace activity happens at an individual level, with everyday transactions and investments. “But none of this activity is really dependent upon the omnium gatherum of statistical facts about the economy ingested by the federal government,” he wrote.
Recessions are just the aggregate reduction of spending, which can occur for all sorts of reasons: malinvestment, changing consumer preference, emerging efficiency-boosting technologies, increased saving, retirements, accidents, death, or just a jump in layabouts who just don’t feel like working, God bless ‘em. Putting a number to the trend, and having a bunch of green-eyeshaded eggheads make it “official” is useful for commentary writers and expensive campaign consultants. It may make for filler parlor talk—noting “because we’re in a recession” while quaffing a Gin Mare Negroni before explaining while you settled for a 100-feet LOA yacht instead of 200. But otherwise the metric is superfluous.
The Biden Administration’s verbal sleight of hand may convince the blue base, buying brief favorable press coverage. But it is, as Mr. Stoppard wrote, a lie to protect itself. Slippery linguistic lies come at the price of further eroding institutional trust. The biggest questions of our time used to be “How can we create a good society?”; “What precautions can we take to avoid World War III?”; “By what means do we provide for those who can’t provide for themselves?”; “What’s the best way to protect the environment while not sacrificing living standards?”; and “Do we have the expertise to put a man on Mars?”
Now we spend our days asking “What is a woman?”; “What constitutes a recession really?”; “What are your preferred pronouns?”; and “What the hell is a cishet huwhite male?”
We’ve recessed in shared vernacular and meaning, making answering the big questions a fool’s errand. Although two minutes of Facebook discourse could have told you that.
I’ll end with a recession tip: if you’re looking for a job when applicants outstrip hiring demand, don’t get hung up on if the application sheet includes proper race terminology. Accepting standard usage makes life easier for everyone. Democrats are going to feel their own inter-party recession this fall for failing to heed that simple creed.