Earlier today, Americans for Tax Reform sent around a press release with some anti-“stimulus” talking points, and one bit of innocuous-looking phrasing jumped out at me:
In fact, many economists – left, right, and center – believe that this spending package is wasteful and will not grow the economy.
Years ago, when I worked at Cato, I saw Slate‘s Will Saletan give a great talk on framing effects in political communication. One of his examples was the phrase “grow the economy,” which he pointed out (and a quick check on Lexis-Nexis just now confirms) was basically unheard of until Bill Clinton started using the phrase during his first presidential campaign. At the time, numerous commentators remarked on how odd it sounded; now it’s quite commonplace. As Saletan put it, Clinton made “grow” into a transitive verb in the context of economic policy: “The president grows the economy.”
This is subtly but importantly different from arguing about whether a paticular piece of legislation will, say, “promote economic growth.” In the one case, “growth” is fundamentally something economies do (or don’t do), and policy can be seen as helping or hindering matters. In the other, the economy is basically cast as inert—growth is something governments do to them. The contrast is a little clearer if you consider the parallel distinction between the rather banal sentence “A good father will promote his child’s growth,” and the alternative “A good father will grow his child,” which sounds like advice for mad scientists. In a sense, then, arguing about whether a particular blll does or doesn’t effectively “grow the economy” already cedes the frame.