The Great Whatever

Washington Matters

The Great Whatever

Other than "crisis" or "worst crisis since the Great Depression," we have no idea what to call this thing we're going through. And that's bad -- a name we could all agree on would mean we understood what we are dealing with. After all, the Depression didn't become Great until we were several year years into it. And we didn't get around to even acknowledging the current recession formally until a few months ago -- long after we all knew we were in crisis.

Obviously we won't come up with a name that will land in history books for a while, but it's useful to think about how we describe this crisis.

Consider that how it's discussed depends a good bit on who's doing the talking. Journalists, for example, are looking to be both succinct and eye-catching, so they always grasp for superlatives: the worst jobless rate in 25 years, the biggest one day drop in the Dow and so on. The problem is that the constant drone and moan of gloomy cable chatter punctuated by bulletins on the latest "worsts" and records is that it alone can make things worse by shaking the confidence of consumers, business and investors.

Reporters do try to stick to facts, highlighting the most important -- which are often the most alarming. They properly argue that their job is to report the truth and not be swayed by the potential effect. President Obama and others in the administration have no such luxury and have a far tougher balancing act -- not to mention that their words carry far more weight and potentially far greater consequences. Obama has to stick to facts, of course, but he has to find words and images that convey to Americans the difficult and even dangerous situation the country faces. But he also has to make sure the strong language he uses doesn't cause panic or a market crash. Think of the difference between "urgency" and "alarm" and just how few shades of gray can separate them.

The administrtion seems to have settled on history as the defining metaphor. The head of President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, told NPR that in recent weeks she's repeatedly been saying things like: "the worst 12-month job loss since the Great Depression ... the worst rise in home foreclosures since the Great Depression." She immediately points out, however, that "since" is not the same thing as "as." There is no equivalency between the 1930s and now and a long, long way to go in terms of economic misery to get there. But it also makes the point Obama wants to make -- this is the worst economic problem Americans have faced in seven decades, which includes multiple bouts with recessions, inflation and that joyless place in between, stagflation

All of this careful hedging with words really, really makes me miss George Carlin. He'd know what to call this mess. The late comedian loved words (and not just the four-letter kind) and had special scorn for those who would use them to obscure, soften or confuse. To understand just how well he understood that language affects how we perceive the world and how we think, listen to his routine on baseball and football . (In football the quarterback uses "short bullet passes and long bombs as he marches his troops into enemy territory." In baseball, "the object is to go home and be safe."). He would have drooled over the terms people have tried to foist off on us so far -- the worst by far being "The Great Reset" -- a smart concept since it pinpoints the the growth-restraining "deleveraging" we will be experiencing for years to come, but who on Earth will tell their grand kids how they managed to live through the Great Reset.)  He'd be overjoyed by "Great Recession" and surely it would have anchored a routine for being such a lovely example of trying to have it both ways -- deep and scary but, well, not too deep and scary. So what's left? I think he would have loved "The Mild Depression."