Monday, April 21, 2008

Definitions are corrupt

By Rick Morris

Last month, television viewers witnessed a shocking spectacle: a horrific storm blowing straight through downtown Atlanta. Among other notable characteristics of the carnage, a good hunk of the roof was blown off the Georgia Dome during the SEC men's basketball tournament.

That night, a bunch of egghead scientists went before the cameras and refused to call the storm a tornado, "pending more examination of the facts." The next day, they reluctantly concluded that, yes, it probably had been a tornado.

Like most people who witnessed that anal-retentive idiocy, I said, "WHAT???" All that episode proved, however, was that scientists operate on the same basis as economists: clinging to technically-correct interpretations of illegitimate definitions.

Amid that chaos that the subprime mortgage meltdown inflicted on our economy -- with the collapse of a ginormous old-school institution that had to be crash-landed by the Fed so it didn't cause a global crisis -- with foreign institutions who have grown increasing restless at the prospect of continuing to finance our monstrous federal debt -- there are still economic pundits, mostly Republicans (because there's a Republican in the White House -- not an economic conservative, but still a Republican who must be defended to the death, apparently), who either deny that we're in a recession or are necessarily headed for one.

It is technically true that it's not yet proven that we're in a recession, inasmuch as the technical definition mandates two consecutive quarters of economic contraction. And it is true that the media sensationalizes bad economic news, albeit no more than they habitually emphasize the lurid on topics ranging from Britney Spears to Pacman Jones. But regardless of whether every economic horror story reported on meets the smell test, even your average mouth-breather in the mass media is closer to the truth of what's really going on than some jerk in an ivory tower trying to get attention by telling you that the numbers say that things aren't so bad.

By the standards of pedantic economists who use definitions at complete variance with how the average American understands modern vocabulary, the words themselves are rendered meaningless. I know this firsthand. I graduated from college when the George Bush Recession Caused by Caving In To Tom Foley On Tax Hikes was in full bloom, but apologists like Rush Limbaugh have always pointed to figures that indicated it was over very quickly and was not severe. Of course, why Limbaugh and so-called conservative economists have so consistently shilled for two generations of Bush presidents who had anything but a well-rounded conservative economic record remains an eternal mystery.

Hey, even the official inflation rate has only hovered around 4% each of the last few months. If the official inflation rate were a dude, I'd love to take him to the grocery store and the gas pump so I could call him a freaking liar before I punched him in the face. And the unemployment rate is officially only 5.1% right now, but it doesn't count people who are not employed but also not eligible for unemployment compensation. Nor does it count people working a measly part-time job because they can't find anything else or a couple of crappy part-time jobs. I know people who fit all of the above criteria in this "not yet a recession" period, just like how I lived it when I graduated in a "non recession" lo those many years ago. While Mark Twain's suspicion of statistics would probably make him a horrible rotisserie baseball player, it summed up perfectly our government's perennially-cynical attempts to cook the books on any number that could reflect poorly on the present time.

So the next time you hear Larry Kudlow (a man with a brilliant grasp of economic growth but no concept of how our country's debt will choke us some day and a tin ear for how his "technically correct" definitions of tough times are received by average voters) or some other "expert" pontificating about how conditions really aren't so bad because this equation on this piece of paper says so -- resolve to kick them in the groin if you ever get to meet them in person.

No comments: