It’s “Economy,” Stupid

by Bryan

Your average person does not understand how American economy works. Nor does your average American politician, including the president. Most economists don’t even know it, or know it but keep their mouths shut. Linguists know it, but they probably gave up the fight long ago in a bow to common usage.

But I think there’s a strong argument that a little linguistic game we play has serious consequences for how we think about our country and our politics. I think there’s one little word that’s standing between us and our ability to properly conceptualize the problem in which we find ourselves.

That word? “The.”

Go to any article you can find or pull up any press conference video and you’ll see or hear countless references to “the economy.” “The economy,” however, doesn’t exist. Economy exists, or it doesn’t. Our processes are either efficient or are not. Our economy is good or our economy is bad.

The problem with calling it “the economy” is that it creates something tangible out of something invisible, and politicizes it and dumbs it down at once. Why can’t President Obama just fix “the economy?” Can’t he get in there with a screwdriver and get the thing running again? Obama, for his part, can blame Congress for not doing the same thing. Calling it “the economy” makes our discussions reductive and dumb by removing them from the real world. It becomes a twisted take on Kenan Thompson’s Saturday Night Live character, yelling “Fix it!” over and over and expecting results. Which is pretty much what our political system has become.

A fair question would be whether I think a simple linguistic trick really has the power to make us all reductive and silly. The answer is: Yes! I just don’t think it’s intentional, most of the time—commodifying economy into “the economy” prevents us from thinking about it too much, by design. Economy is, by definition, everyone’s problem. “The economy” is President Obama’s problem. Fixing it is his job.

To a degree, that’s true, obviously. He has more power to affect American economy than anyone else. It is my job to write about licensed products, and it is his job to deal with 1,000 different problems of American inefficiency at once. In the right hands, conflating these problems into something called “the economy” wouldn’t matter, but bankers have already showed us what happened when very smart people use deliberately oversimplified terms to describe mind-bendingly complex problems.

People are not stupid. They can understand complex problems. It does not help anyone to dumb these problems down, because when people work off of incomplete information, they make the problem worse. For all the talk about how badly our media outlets go to misinform us a la the full-court press at Fox News, the solution might be a “broken window theory” of information providing—get the little thing right, and the big things will follow.