Portraits of Wildflowers

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Archive for July 30th, 2022

Inland sea oats arc

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 Look at the characteristically graceful way inland sea oats (Chasmanthum latifolium) forms arcs.
I photographed these green seed heads along Bull Creek on June 24th.



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The latest attempt to redefine a word


In the middle of the 20th century George Orwell, himself a former Communist, pointed out the ways in which authoritarian regimes believe they can control people by redefining words. In 1984, a dystopian novel of the then-future, Orwell went so far as to invent a language that he called newspeak. In that language, for example, people were still allowed to use the adjective free in the sense that a dog is free from fleas but not in the normal sense in which a person has individual liberty.

In previous commentaries I’ve criticized campaigns within the past few years to redefine such basic terms as man, woman, and mother (notoriously recast as a “birthing person”). This week the semantic reformers have targeted the financial term recession. For decades now the predominant rule of thumb for recognizing a recession has been ‘two consecutive quarters of declining growth in the gross national product [GNP].’ Do an online search and you’ll find that definition in dozens of places, including the January 1991 article “Weathering a Weak Economy” in the magazine Black Enterprise. Similarly, a person in a 1989 Congressional hearing had spoken of a recession as “two consecutive quarters of less than zero real growth.” And the 2014 book Understanding National Accounts mentions “the two consecutive quarters of decline in real GDP [gross domestic product] that typically denotes a recession.”

The typically in that last quotation concedes some wiggle room in determining whether a given country at a given time has entered a recession. I’m certainly not opposed to nuance. What I am opposed to is the opportunistic mad scramble that we’ve seen in the United States over the past several days by government officials proclaiming that the standard decades-long indicator of a recession was never really the standard decades-long indicator of a recession—just like women were never really the only kind of people who could give birth.

It was almost fun to watch the hypocrisy. For instance, among the choreographed corps of recession-deniers was current White House economic adviser Brian Deese, who on July 26th insisted that “two negative quarters of GDP growth is not the technical definition of recession.” Investigators, however, soon turned up a statement Deese himself had made in 2008: “What Senator Clinton has said is that of course economists have a technical definition of recession, which is two consecutive quarters of negative growth.”

It wasn’t just government officials who twisted themselves into instant recession-deniers. So did many commenters on television networks, as did newspaper writers, people in charge of social media, and even Wikipedia, which in the past few years has become increasingly biased. As Nellie Bowles reported in the blog Common Sense on July 29th:

The Wikipedia page on “recession” is getting furiously updated. (The crowd-source encyclopedia now contains a note on the “recession” entry that all previous definitions are false: “An outdated version of this article has been widely circulated. Please verify that claims or screenshots you may have seen are consistent with the actual content here.”) The economic historian Phil Magness posted on Facebook about the White House word games with recession and got a warning tagging it as “false information” and adding a “fact check.” Government is inefficient in most ways, but when it comes to coordinating with our social media oligarchs, it’s a well-oiled machine.  

You’re welcome to read that full piece as well as a January 28th article by Eric Boehm in Reason entitled “After 2 Consecutive Quarters of Negative Economic Growth, Is America in a Recession?” The subtitle is “Most Americans believe so.”

© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 30, 2022 at 4:30 AM

Posted in nature photography

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