Dear Carla Fran,
With headlines everywhere today screaming about the meltdown of the economy, I felt my pulse quicken. “My God!” I thought. “My money!” Before remembering, like the Bluths (Season 3, Episode 6), that I have no money.
As I read one article after another, fear turned to rage over the meltdown of language used to describe and explain the economy.
On January 22, 2008, Brent Budowsky wrote the following for The Hill:
Our crisis today is real. The common sense of the matter is clear. The gathering storm is upon us. The sooner we act, the stronger the program, the greater the good and the lesser the pain. We should escalate the bipartisanship and increase the power of the program.
Sooner, stronger, greater, lesser—that’s a brilliant portrait in miniature of the American economy. But common sense? My thesis, for today, is that common sense plays absolutely no role in the economic discourse the U.S. has developed for its citizens. That honor goes to the Brothers Grimm.
To do Budowsky justice, this paragraph wraps up an article—found here—on issues troubling the economy and proposing some solutions. He even predicts Black Monday (we’ve all agreed that’s what Monday was, yes?). Says, too, that
… the bond insurance problems are very serious and there is a dangerous disconnect between Washington, Wall Street and Main Street.
Granted. But there’s a more worrisome disconnect. It’s the one that forces every newspaper in America to resort to the only economic marker the average American knows: the Great Depression. Who knew 1984 was here already? Americans talk economic Newspeak; the government has handily eliminated all words for the economy except “Depression,” “Black Monday,” “up,” “down” and maybe “bull” and “bear.”
Is the Great Depression really the only metaphor available? Is our economic vocabulary really that small?
I think the answer is an unqualified YES.
Take me. I’m in approximately, oh, 47th grade. I’ve taken a ridiculous, an absurd, some might say a self-indulgent and offensive number of classes. Calculus. Statistics. Organic Chemistry and Civics and Motivated Behaviors and Movement Training for Musicians. I’ve studied Botany and French and Happiness (yes, that’s right) and Chekhov and Art and A.P. U.S. History and Global Studies and International Relations and Theory of Knowledge and Anthropology. I may not remember much about most of them, but how is it possible, I ask you, that after twelve years in a comparatively decent public educational system and umpteen more of college, I have a five-year-old’s grip of our economic problems?
And this despite the fact that I’ve actually made the supreme sacrifice and read a book or two on the stock market, taken Morningstar courses to educate myself financially and researched my poor little acorn-husk investments?
I was doing a LexisNexis check to see how many times the words “worst since Great Depression” appeared in newsprint in the last ten years, but Donald Luskin, who shares my annoyance, beat me to it in his 9/14/08 article “Quit Doling Out That Bad-Economy Line.” According to him, the Post alone used the phrase nine times in the last two months. An adviser to John McCain, he talks cogently about the inaccuracy and foolhardiness of making such a comparison. I find myself nodding in agreement, feeling smugly bipartisan. We are indeed a “nation of exaggerators.”
Then he pinpoints the source of the epidemic.
“Ooh! Ooh! IknowIknowIknow!” I hear you say. “The criminal neglect of any sort of economic education for our children? Forcing newspapers to do the sex-ed equivalent of ‘Daddy plants a seed in Mommy?”‘”
“…and that’s how Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were born. And they grew and grew. Then a Bear called Stearns came to visit, so we sold him to a nice man named JP Morgan who promised to give him lots of honey. Fannie and Freddie got so fat eating Turkish Delight that they couldn’t leave their houses in the shire, so Gandalf gave them each a bag of gold so the White Witch wouldn’t evict them for defaulting on their debt. And the Lehman brothers fell down a well.”
But take comfort, little one. All is not lost! As the Christian Science Monitor tells us bright and early this Thursday morning, “Congress Eyes Solutions for Wall Street Woes.”
See? THEY ARE TAKING CARE OF IT. Congress is cool. Congress is fucking money. He won’t make any moves yet. But he’s eyeing Solutions. He’s like a big bear with claws and with fangs, and big fucking teeth, and Solutions is just like this little bunny, who’s just kinda cowering in the corner.
Sources say Solutions wrote down her number on a napkin and handed it to the bartender.
Oh, intercourse the children!! (I hear you cry.) What about US? What the hell is going on? Sub-prime mortgage crises? Credit buyouts? What’s the Consumer Expectations Survey and why didn’t I get one? What’s a GNP Deflator? Does it come in pink? And what do I, an average American citizen, make of a sentence like this, not from a newspaper but from an actual business source like Marketwatch:
Also Wednesday, it was revealed that money market funds managed by Bank of New York Mellon Corp.’s Dreyfus and Columbia Management, the fund arm of Bank of America Corp., held commercial paper issued by Lehman Brothers Holdings and needed support from their parent companies to maintain their $1 a share net asset value.
An arm. Someone holding paper. Parents. So Dreyfus (also, confusingly, B. of A’s arm) manages money market funds which hold commercial paper from the Lehman Brothers (so are the funds, like, the fingers?) and needs help from his parents wiping his own assets.
That’s it! The epidemic of Great Depression references stems from the fact that we are all economically illiterate! And rather than learn, we reduce serious economic news to bad diaper jokes!
So the source of this unimaginative spate of yellow journalism, this total dependence on an eighty-year old boogie-man trope for disaster and devastation, this abuse by the press of a term—used perhaps legitimately by both Soros and Greenspan—that reduces, nay, depletes our nation’s history, is due to whom?
Here’s a hint: it starts with an “O.”