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Growing the Economy

February 11th, 2009 · 8 Comments

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.

Tags: Economics · Language and Literature



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Grammar and the economy. | The Gadfly // Feb 11, 2009 at 12:21 pm

    […] Sanchez has an interesting quick history of the phrase “grow the economy.” Turns out that Clinton introduced the phrase to our political […]

  • 2 apk01004 // Feb 17, 2009 at 2:57 am

    I’ll agree that “to grows the economy” sounds dumb. On the other hand, you could look at it as a more straightforward phrasing than “the economy grew.”

    Unlike children and vegetables, GDP’s and wages and exports don’t just grow on their own, without . Billions of people have to work hard, so to speak, to grow it. Awarding all credit to the president is excessive — although he surely has a lot to do with it. Would it sound less dumb if we made a more obviously true statement? How about “The president of Apple grows the economy?” Same grating syntax, but market-friendly!

    I think you’re giving too much sinister meaning to the way “grow” is used. Whether we say “the farmer grew the carrot” or “the carrot grew,” the audience gets the connotation that the carrot did its growing under the farmer’s helpful aegis. In neither version (to my mind) is the farmer’s role unclear.

    I don’t want to get into the idea of winning a political debate by “reframing” the terms, an idea that is completely cracked.

  • 3 apk01004 // Feb 17, 2009 at 3:06 am

    without effort, that should have read. Sorry.

  • 4 Erstwhile // Feb 17, 2009 at 9:18 am

    I basically agree with apk1004.

    Everyone from Aristotle to Orwell–and before, and after–has noted that you can make a political point either more or less effective by the way that you choose and arrange your words.

    I think in this case we have the symptom of a greater disease, not its vector. The disease is thinking that “the economy” is some sort of recipe that’s cooked up by a few key elected officials and bureaucrats in Washington and that people, their projects, their businesses, etc., are just ingredients to be stretched and molded like taffy.

    Conservatives and Republicans make a mirror-image of this mistake when they think the economy is ONLY private transactions and ignore the key role of the government both in creating a legal context for stability in secure property rights, etc. and the fact that the government does stuff, some of which actually creates value. (Of course, smart libertarians and conservatives will concede this point and argue only that individuals cooperating would organize to create more, often MUCH more, value.)

    Incidentally, Bill Clinton did have the annoying habit of choosing paradoxically awkward-yet-slick constructions: no one ever talked about “exploding the deficit” before. (It’s so cloying! Yet so clear!)

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Feb 20, 2009 at 1:57 am

    I don’t think it’s “sinister”… of course people choose rhetorical frames that they think help their arguments (“death tax,” “Terrorist Surveillance Program”) — I’m just saying it pays to be aware of them and not choose someone else’s frame. If it didn’t actually affect the debate, though, people wouldn’t do it.

    Incidentally the market-friendly “grew the economy” sounds off to me too, though for different reasons… it’s like saying cells grew the body. There’s some sense in which I guess that’s true, but the connotations are off — there’s an implication of conscious oversight of the whole process, even if we can all figure out what’s intended.

  • 6 apk01004 // Feb 20, 2009 at 4:47 am

    I think people do it precisely because it does affect the debate — but only for the worst.

    At best, insisting on your preferred frame rather than what other people are using (and here I should reiterate that “X grows the economy does sound awkward and I don’t like it) makes you sound unclear and slightly cranky:

    A bunch of people are discussing the abortion debate in terms of “pro-choice” and “pro-life”, when you commence to talk about the “anti-choice” position. “Is he talking about the same thing?” they wonder. “Does he think we don’t understand what ‘pro-life’ entails?” they wonder. Even if they don’t get confused, no real understanding is gained.

    At worst, it’s like sticking your thumb in your interlocutor’s eye with each sentence, underlining your partisanship and unwillingness to be convinced with each “death tax” you utter.

    And with all this framing business, you need to ask yourself, whose mind are you changing at the margins? Anybody who’s convinced by (argument + clever framing) and isn’t convinced by the argument alone is clearly so addled that the framing surely qualifies as a kind of deceit.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Feb 20, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    With phrases like “death tax” and “anti-choice,” I tend to agree. When it’s a question of the choice between “grow the economy” and “promote (or support) economic growth,” I don’t think it’s that big a problem.

  • 8 Mad Science and Economic Snake Oil | NineCents // Feb 26, 2009 at 2:58 pm

    […] At best, government can use policy to foster an environment for growth.  Julian Sanchez said it best:  <em>”The contrast is a little clearer if you consider the parallel distinction […]