Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
"I have always believed that proper grammar has been set in stone, so to speak, and that it does not change in any society, nor in any decade.”
I always want to sit these people down and say, "Okay. Sure. But can you tell me something? Who set these rules in stone and, while we're at it, can you show me the stone (so to speak) of which you speak?"
I think it would take about five minutes to demonstrate to one of these people that they don't know what grammar is. As I've written before, it's not a list of rules someone once "legislated." It's analysis of how the language is used. People like this Oklahoman reader bought — hook, line and sinker — a long-dead teacher's long-ago spiel about absolute rights and wrongs without ever asking, "What's your source on that?"
* * *
A commenter at Tennessean.com wrote:
"OK, I confess. I am somewhat of a grammatical snob. After all, I am a writer. ... The truth is, I have no problem with "casual" grammar. It would be a rather pretentious world if we all went around sounding like college term papers. I have even been known to occasionally split an infinitive myself. "
D'oh. Why is it that the people most willing to embrace the label of grammar snob don't even know some of the most basic facts, like there's no rule against splitting infinitives?
Plus, the idea that writers have an extraordinary grasp of grammar is silly. Perhaps the average writer is more grammar-savvy than the average stock broker, plumber, or president. But I know a lot of writers and none of them considers herself to have a good enough knowledge of grammar.
* * *
A reader of the Amarillo Globe News recently wrote to complain that Arne Duncan, President-Elect Obama's pick for education secretary, gave thanks to those " ... who gave my sister and I ..."
Commenters on the site said this was nitpicking — especially when you consider all the assaults on the English language committed by our current commander-in-chief. Others argued Duncan was speaking colloquially/idiomatically.
As someone who can't help but be peeved by certain objective uses of "I," I'm going to side with the letter-writer. Knowing when to use "my sister and I" versus "my sister and me" is basic stuff. It's not a nitpicky thing like whether you can use "have got" in place of plain old "have." The concept of subject and object pronouns is grammar 101 — important stuff. I suspect Duncan's words arose out of ignorance and not conscious choice. An education secretary nominee should demonstrate mastery of basic grammatical concepts.
Monday, December 29, 2008
In today's New York Times, university professor and dean Stanley Fish tells a story about a frustrating experience with an AT&T customer-service rep who said, "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"
Bad grammar? You betcha. Worth writing a column about? I'd say so. Validly disturbing to a grammarphile? Sure. The premise of Fish's article poses no problem for me. But he began the column like this:
When you live in two places and decamp from one to the other every six months or so, there are any number of things that have to be done. (I know that at least 50 readers will want to rebuke me for complaining about problems only the privileged can have, but perhaps we can agree to get past that.)
There are several ways one could take this, but here's a particularly noteworthy one: He's telling readers — readers — to shut up and listen.
In the new book I'm working on, I talk a lot about the difference between what I call reader-serving writing and writer-serving writing. It's a concept that began to gel in my mind back when I was a newspaper reporter/editor and people would ask me and my colleagues to write stories "for them" or "to help them." For example, someone who was getting screwed by a landlord would try to convince our paper to write a story about him to help him get justice.
But here's what they didn't get: Our readers were not a captive audience whose attention should be exploited to achieve other ends — no matter how meaningful those ends. Our readers were not a tool to be used in the pursuit of justice. The readers were the boss. Really. Only if the story was first and foremost for the readers did we have any business running it.
There's lots of potential reader value in a column about bad grammar and bad customer service. Yet Mr. Fish couldn't deliver. He was too steeped in an attitude of "let them eat cake while I bitch about the only frustrations that matter: mine." I base this not on his second sentence alone.
Exhibit B: Fish (surprise, surprise) couldn't let the bad grammar go. He told the rep her mistake and, when that got him no satisfaction, he tried to go over her head.
Exhibit C: Fish also wrote about how AT&T gave him the runaround and failed to set up his voice mail, as he requested. This is reader-serving in its universality — we've all been there and we can all rant and cheer along with a well-delivered tirade on the subject. But think for a minute about the hubris of the guy who thinks that his getting bad customer service is so noteworthy it belongs in print. There are people who have died from bad customer service. Literally. Consider the damage a poorly run health-insurance claims department can do when mishandled red tape delays some poor person's chemotherapy. Yet Fish thought the injustice he suffered — they failed to set up his voice mail! — was worth writing about.
Exhibit D: In a day and age when so many people are losing their homes that it's taking down the whole economy, Fish had the huevos to deliver a preemptive "shut up" to anyone who would take issue with his whine about having two houses. Here's how a reader-serving writer would have dealt with his situation: Reader-serving writers omit distracting details. If you want to write an article about pothole repair in your town and you gained a lot of insights while talking to friends at an A.A. meeting, you might be better off just calling them friends and leaving it at that. By mentioning they're A.A. friends, you're raising questions you don't plan to answer. Fish didn't have to mention the two-house business. He could just as easily have told his tragic tale of delayed voice mail service without slapping the reader in the second sentence. Such omissions are not just ethical. They're standard. Every article ever written omits certain details deemed outside of the scope of the article or the reader's interest. When motivated by a desire to serve the reader, it's the right thing to do.
Exhibit E: Fish is credited as the author of a book called Save the World on Your Own Time. When I check Amazon.com, I see this:
Fish's lively polemic skewers the popular perspective that universities have an obligation to foster ethical, social, and political virtues ...
I haven't read the book, but the premise seems to be that colleges should teach and not preach. I'll buy that. I know nothing about academic administration, but, unless I'm missing something, I'd say this is a right position. But when I look at Fish's title, I smell a rat. The title is written in the imperative. It's a command. Which leads us to wonder: Who's he talking to? and leaves us with only one possible answer: His own reader.
It's quite possible that this title is just for effect and that the contents of the book are as valid and reader-serving as any other treatise on any other subject. Were it not for his New York Times column, I would assume that was the case. But this is one of the parts that, summed up, form something bigger than the whole. It's like me writing a book titled, "Stop driving SUVs because you're rudely obstructing my view of traffic." Readers are not people you boss around, Mr. Fish. When you're writing, they're your boss.
Exhibit F, from Fish's column:
I reached someone who assured me that I would have voice mail the next day, and he turned out to be right. But by that time I was beyond caring. I told him that I had decided to write a column about my AT&T adventures and that, in fairness, I thought I should talk to someone in the corporate structure.
It's quite possible that "fairness" and journalistic principles governed his decision to tell an AT&T rep that he was writing a column. However, it's also possible that he was using readers as a tool — a blunt instrument with which to intimidate and clobber his enemies. We can't know. But here's what I can know: Fish doesn't get that every reader is a reader you should be grateful for any more than he gets what's wrong with a column about the sufferings of a dude with two houses in an economy with record foreclosures.
My closing argument: Fish is an A-hole. And I hope very much that you found some value in this rant, otherwise, I'm right there with him.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
I'm afraid that's as language-interesting as I can be on Christmas Eve. But I wanted to say merry Christmas, happy holidays, and thanks for reading!
And for those who like animals, here's a small gift. My agent's new puppy is headlining today on Mediabistro's GalleyCat. Damn cute sight for dog lovers.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Sundays' HighThey were referring to the previous day's temperatures. So they meant Sunday's High.
Here's the link: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032619/#28354137. The graphic is 1 minute, 23 seconds into the story. (Sorry I couldn't embed. Something was wrong with the embed code on their site.)
Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)
highways and byways
This is a true Ike and Tina pairing. Poor byways has so much to offer. But it's completely subjugated in its relationship.
Of all the times I've heard someone say "highways and byways," I've never once believed the "byways" carried any meaning for the speaker. It's like the person wanted to speak only of highways, but he just couldn't resist the urge to make more sounds come out of his mouth.
A byway, according to American Heritage online, is a "secluded, private, or obscure road." Good word, huh? Handy and powerful for a mystery author writing about a drifter or a romance writer describing a backseat tryst.
WorldNet's definition, "a side road little traveled," suggests all kinds of wonderful metaphors.
But no, byways (in my experience) is used not to convey meaning to a listener but to provide empty gratification to the speaker or writer.
I can understand why these two words hooked up. Were it not for its brain-numbing overuse, the phrase "highways and byways" would be useful and visual -- a comprehensive snapshot of the roads that might be traveled. But too many people have used it as white noise for too long. It's time these two split up.
Monday, December 22, 2008
I wonder if that reader also knows the meaning of "For the love of freakin' Zeus, will you schmoes please remove your lips from the butt of your English teacher who died forty years ago and open a damn book?"
Here's what these people don't get: Usage dictates grammar. Usage also dictates word definitions. In fact, it is the very basis of word definitions.
I don't mean this in a partisan way. I mean that, quite literally, "a grammar" is a description of how people arrange words, and a dictionary is a formal documentation of how words are used.
Our very ideas of "right" and "wrong" grammar and usage are based not on whether some language czar has sanctioned something or forbidden it. They're based on what English users do. Again, that's not partisan. It's fact.
Nor is this some form of grammar anarchy reflecting an ideology in which nothing can be wrong. Some structures are ungrammatical. "Me wants you I visit," for example, is ungrammatical. It is inconsistent with the standards established by English users. There are many, many such things that can be labeled as "wrong."
But the "hopefully" in question isn't one of them. Dictionaries allow "Hopefully, I'll see you tomorrow." Strunk and White didn't. But, as I've said, Strunk wasn't writing for you and me, anyway (though they were happy to take our money and their copyright holders continue to).
It's hard to loosen a white-knuckle grip on comforting, rock solid ideas of right and wrong. I, for one, still cringe every time I hear "there's" before a plural. But that's no excuse for the the Kansas City Star reader who said that "hopefully" as a sentence adverb is "never okay ... no matter what."
Hopefully, these people will give it a rest.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Accommodations are provided by the Snofitel Hotel, a AAA Four Diamond Award-winning resort and spa.
Now, here comes the question:
Did you hesitate at the article "a" before "AAA"?
I was fascinated to stumble across something like this in my copy editing recently. It had an "a" before "AAA." Most fascinating was that I almost didn't catch this because my mind's ear heard not "a AyAyAy" but "a triple-A," making this perhaps the only vowel-only initialism pronounced as though it begins with a T!
Out of curiosity, I printed this out on a piece of paper and asked two co-workers to read it aloud. Josh, without hesitation, read "... a triple-A ..." Darlene, who had to reach for her glasses, was still trying to adjust her eyes when she began reading aloud. It sounded something like, "a Ayay ... uh, a triple-A ..."
While focused on visual tasks, she began to read it as written. When her brain kicked in with some interpretive help, she found the word "triple" without even realizing what she had done.
Call me nerdy (or bored), but I find that pretty cool. And I decided to leave it as-is.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Five days after I analyzed language trends to demonstrate the declining cultural impact of cocaine, the Los Angeles Times yesterday reported a decline in cocaine on U.S. streets. Yeah, I'm that good. So I'd also like to use my rare insights to predict that President Bush will be out of the White House by February and that Tom Cruise will fail to convince the world he's not a weenie.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Every town has retail stores. Many have manufacturers. Some even have retail stores where you can buy directly from manufacturers. They’re called outlet stores. But one town is so special, so above all others, that it couldn’t stand to have its combination manufacturer-retailers clumped in with all those other lesser “outlets.”
That’s why, here in L.A., we have a “manutailer.”
H.D. Buttercup, a Los Angeles furniture emporium where buyers purchase directly from manufacturers, proudly embraces the “manutailer” label. So proudly, in fact, that when the store owners rolled out their "manutailer" campaign they scored some big-time free publicity — an all-about-them story in the Los Angeles Times.
Because, if you think about it, what better way to convince the press that you’re doing something new and newsworthy than by doing something old and attaching a funny- and new-sounding word to it?
For example, cosmetics company Bobbi Brown has a groundbreaking signature product called “tinted moisturizer.” It takes about $50 and one week to realize that “tinted moisturizer” is just an inverted way of saying “oily foundation.”
It just goes to show you there’s a land of opportunity out there for clever wordsmiths who don’t get nauseous no matter how much they spin. And don’t worry that the new words you pioneer are completely empty. Three years later, when your word is all but forgotten and you’ve made a fool out of anyone who suggested it was a harbinger of the future, you’ll be long gone.
Monday, December 15, 2008
How Not to Be Missed: A lesson from the Los Angeles Times in how to die quietly and assure that no one cries at your funeral
Which is more interesting?
1. In Niger, nomads with battered Soviet-era weapons are fighting the army to control the uranium under the soil.Another pair:
— or —
2. Israel is moving to “shore up” pensions.
1. Radicals are protesting at the university of Athens in the wake of a 15-year-old being shot and killed.How about:
— or —
2. A power struggle inside Somalia’s government “grew worse Sunday.”
1. “Somalia’s president fires prime minister but may not have the authority to do so.”
— or —
2. The above-mentioned story about a Somalian power struggle growing worse.
1. The British Prime minister is trying to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attack.
— or —
2. Samir Geaga, a former Lebanese warlord who spent 11 years in prison, says he's "a changed man."
In each of the pairs above, No. 1 is a leading story from today's world coverage in the New York Times. No. 2 is a leading story from today's world coverage in the Los Angeles Times. And, in each of the pairs above, it's clear that the Los Angeles Times has a serious problem.
Both papers carried the news that Bush had shoes thrown at him. (And, despite the fact that most of us saw it live online yesterday, it was reported in both papers with "first-day leads," meaning their angle was that it happened and not another spin that incorporates analysis or aftermath, making the papers look about as relevant and groundbreaking Ford's rollout of the 1990 Escort.)
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been writing about the German chancellor's opposition to a European economic rescue plan. Los Angeles Times readers today wouldn't know anything about that.
Worse, those lame Los Angeles Times story selections are more prominent in the paper than everything but front-page news. When you open today's Los Angeles Times, the first thing you see staring at you on Page 3 in big headline type is the news that Israel is shoring up pension plans.
The New York Times, conversely, starts most of its non-A1 international coverage on Page 6, after its "Monday Business" stories that are both relevant and interesting, including a story about how finance powerhouse Goldman Sachs is expected to report that its profits have dried up. (If you recall, this is the company in which superstar investor Warren Buffet recently invested billions just days before the stock started a freefall that has slashed the stock in half.)
Ever since the mid-1990s when I was a staff reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times' community news division, I've watched in horror as the paper's bosses made one stupid decision after another. But business judgment and news judgment are two different things. True, all the lame story selections in today's LA Times may be caused by staff cutbacks. But if you have a reporter to cover Israeli pensions, couldn't you put that same reporter to better use?
The international story selection is so bad that the LA Times would actually do better to just follow every story of the New York paper. Every day, open up the New York Times, assign an LA Times reporter to every story the NY Times covered, and run it a day later. Day-late interesting stories are better than no interesting stories at all.
My biggest beef with the editorial direction of the Los Angeles Times is that the company has utterly failed to see the bottom-line benefits of community news coverage. I believe that rinky-dink community coverage, done cost-effectively, could have prevented what now seems an unstoppable exodus of readers. And I remember, back when the Tribune Co. took over the Los Angeles Times, there was talk that the new owners wanted to make the paper the New York Times of the West — the undisputed leader in national and international coverage. The people from Chicago didn't bother to ask what Los Angeles readers want. They were going to tell them what they wanted — high-brow world coverage — while killing community news sections at the same time. Then, they couldn't even deliver adequate world coverage, much less force it on a readership that clearly has a greater interest in entertainment-industry news and quality schools coverage.
There's an old "Simpsons" episode in which chronic wino Barney Gumble makes a documentary film about his alcoholism. The closing line: "Don't cry for me. I'm already dead." (Lest you think that the "Simpsons" were getting too serious, I mention that the film was titled "Puke-a-hontas.")
The last throes of the Los Angeles Times seem to echo Barney's plea. Yet, coming from them it's not funny.
Friday, December 12, 2008
I'll be honest: I don't have a good justification for bringing this up. I could craft one. I could talk about the creative formation of compound modifiers and how hyphens help the reader understand more quickly which words are modifying which. I could talk about language trends in recent years in which such compounds are used to craft insults.
But the truth is, I just remembered a "Simpsons" line and it's making me smile.
The setup: Some Canadians and some Americans are hurling insults back and forth at each other. The line in question came from one of the Canadians. He called the Americans a bunch of "Shatner-stealing Mexico touchers."
Really, did I need to find a way to justify sharing that line? I didn't think so.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Wonderings and Pre-Google Googlings (Wherein I wonder about word issues Google can't help me with, then hack into a source that can)
I heard a new old expression the other day. The teacher of the economics class I'm watching via online video said that if you can identify an undervalued stock, you can get rich "in a cocaine heartbeat."
Now quick: Guess whether the instructor is in his late-30s, his early-50s, or his mid-60s.
That's right, late-thirtysomethings don't speak of cocaine. They're all "Heroin this and Kurt Cobain that." Mid-60s types, on the other hand, are all "Reefer this and Timothy Leary that."
This level of cocaine consciousness can only come from someone who spent some formative social years in the 1980s -- a time when certain types wore on chains around their necks things called "coke spoons." A time when you'd occasionally run across a man who kept one pinky nail much longer than all his other fingernails. A time when twenty- and thirtysomethings were all "nose candy this and Crockett and Tubbs that."
So, wondering how this cultural emphasis was reflected in the language, I searched the Los Angeles Times archives for the word "cocaine" over two different time spans.
Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2007 = 399 hits
Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 1986 = 1, 724 hits
I rest my superfreaking, white-loafer-wearing, party like it's 1999 case.
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Words That Should Get a Divorce (One in an occasional series on words whose relationships have grown tired)
fell and swoop
Really, are there no other kinds of swoops? Must every swoop be "fell" (which means savage, cruel, or fierce)? Is there no other kind of swoop? Couldn't you have a robust swoop, a thorough swoop, hell, a happy swoop? How about a swift swoop? A comical swoop? A no-nonsense swoop? A dizzying swoop? A waggish swoop? A mirthful swoop? A snooping swoop? A plain-vanilla swoop?
How about a barbarous swoop?
And why must fell swoops only come in quantities on one? Couldn't you accomplish something important in two fell swoops? Or would that suck the fellness right out of them?
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Quick refresher: the serial comma, also called the Oxford comma, is the comma before the "and" in: "red, white, and blue."
The Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed by most book editors, advocates the serial comma. The Associated Press Stylebook, which many newspapers follow, says not to use it. Per them, it's: "red, white and blue."
Academic types say the serial comma is more correct. (It's true that the AP position is a minority one.) And I think it's just lovely that people have the time and energy to care. Me, I have to WORK with both styles. It's all I can do to remember from one document to the next which style I'm supposed to be following.
It sure would be easier on me if the major style guides would agree on this. But I really couldn't care less whether they went pro-serial comma or anti. As long as I gets paid. (Actually, that's a whole other can of worms. The company for which I do most of my copy editing these days is all over the news for their darling little Chapter 11 stunt -- and they're four weeks behind in paying me! And I'm supposed to care about commas? Woid.)
Monday, December 8, 2008
healthy diet = 4,390,000 hits
healthful diet = 144,000 hits
Traditionalists say that "healthy" means "in good health." They say that, if you mean "promoting good health," you need to use "healthful." That is, a healthy person eats a healthful diet.
That's no longer true. From Webster's New World College Dictionary:
1 having good health; well; sound
2 showing or resulting from good health -- "a healthy color"
This was on my mind today because the Los Angeles Times uses "healthful" this way most or all of the time. Or at least its Health section does. I'm sure that's a rule based on years of dealing with misinformed grammar-snob readers. Frankly, if I were them, I'd do the same. It's not worth the fight.
So I figured that, while a Google search showed a preference for "healthy diet," a Google News search was likely to show a preference for "healthful diet." I was wrong.
healthy diet = 735 hits
healthful diet = 28 hits
Friday, December 5, 2008
Natalie Facing Ugly Allegations; Murdered Boy's Stepfather Sues Chick for Spreading LiesIt took me a while to realize why someone would use "Chick" here. The person in question is a member of the species known collectively as "Dixie Chicks." (Not my scene, man, which is why it took me a minute to piece it together.)
I've long had a spinal reaction to the word "chick." It's not just a feminist thing. I find it more icky when women use "chick" than when men do. A man's use of "chick" has a sort of Richie Cunningham connotation: a boy who likes girls. A woman's use of "chick" has the opposite ring in my ear: It sounds competitive and kind of hateful: a girl who hates other girls. Like, "There's this chick in school who's a total slut." Clearly, this is based on my limited experience (and also a glimpse into why I didn't find high school the most pleasant environment). But that's how it strikes my ear.
Of course, the band name the Dixie Chicks is self-referential, which in my mind means different rules apply. It's not a pretty sound, but it's not hateful, either. The K sound and the S sound in "Dixie" are a little harsh, and added to the K sound and the S sound in "chicks," it's rough on the ear. At least it's not dripping with high-school-girl contempt, though.
Here's another of today's headlines that caught my interest word-wise:
Stocks Rebound on Defensives and BanksI hadn't heard "defensives" in a market context before. I wondered if it meant defense stocks. But no, the writers used it to mean a group of stocks including biotechs.
The first noun form of "defensive," according to my Webster's, is:
[Obs.] something that defends.That "obs." means obsolete. So either the headline writers revived a basically dead word, or this dead word is not dead in the specialized lingo of the stock market and I'm just too much of an outsider (not my scene, man) to know it. (I'm chicky like that.)
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Words I'm Looking Up (One in an occasional cleverly named series on words I'm looking up) (plus late addendum)
This is by no means a new one for me. Strangely, it figured prominently in one of the philosophy texts I read in college. But I'm just so flabbergasted by an AOL news headline that I simply must bat it around a bit. The headline:
From the story:
"We didn't think they would be cheeky enough to attack a cruise ship," Wendy Armitage, of Wellington, New Zealand, told The Associated Press.Definition:
Well done, Ms. Armitage. Weird, but well done. Ah, pirates. Cheeky, spunky, frisky, sassy, saucy, Disney-approved theiving raping murderers!
cheeky: impertinently bold; impudent and saucy — American Heritage Dictionary
* * *
Late addendum we'll call "Words I'm Looking Up for Words I'm Looking Up."
In one of my trademark bouts of after-the-fact insecurity, I decided to look up "flabbergasted" to make sure I used it okay above. I saw this at Dictionary.com:
flabbergastedI love seeing "policement" in a dictionary entry affiliated with Princeton. Now I'm truly in a state of flabbergastment. (Yes, I looked up "policement." No entry.)
as if struck dumb with astonishment and surprise; "a circle of policement stood dumbfounded by her denial of having seen the accident"; "the flabbergasted aldermen were speechless"; "was thunderstruck by the news of his promotion"-- WordNet® 3.0, © 2006 by Princeton University
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Came across this* in a story I'm copy editing.
A 52-foot-tall replica of Bobby the Robot officially starts the event by doffing his top hat in a salute to this year’s theme, “Hats Off to Hanukkah.”
With well-guarded hope in my heart, I looked up "doffing." Alas, there's no way to interpret "doffing one's hat" as something dirty.
doff: 1. to take off; remove: doff one's clothes. 2. to tip or remove (one's hat) in salutation. 3. to put aside; discard. — American Heritage Dictionary
And, once again, a robot lets me down.
*As always, I diguised the text a little.
Monday, December 1, 2008
In some subject areas, it makes sense to accept that we’re on the outs. For example, computer programming languages are definitely over my head. I’m okay with that. Computer programming is a specialization. Yes, it touches my life. But I’m okay with leaving it to the experts.
Our language is different. English is not used only by some very specific workers operating in a very specific segment of the economy. We all use it every day. It belongs to us all. So I find it troubling when people resign themselves to a position of “Oh, I’m so ignorant about grammar. I wish I knew it, but I don’t.”
It’s a form of giving up. Of divesting.
It’s unfortunate and unnecessary, and it leads to some opportunistic B.S. I often term grammar snobbery. So I have tried, in my own little way, to storm (from the inside) the gates of this knowledge ghetto.
This is on my mind today because I’ve been thinking about a knowledge ghetto in a very different realm: economics.
Most people I know feel that the intricate workings of the economy are “over their heads.” It’s difficult, abstract, complicated stuff best left to the experts – or so the general feeling seems to be. We assume that the experts are doing a far better job than we could ever do. In fact, we feel that the subject is so far over our heads that we’re not even qualified to question those experts. There’s no use even trying to learn enough to scrutinize their decisions. We’re at their mercy – and that’s not a bad place to be.
I used to think that this was a reasonable attitude toward economics. I don’t study computer programming languages so that I can cast better votes at the shareholder meetings of Microsoft or Apple. Similarly, it seems silly to assume that by learning more about economics I can become a significantly better citizen. The experts are experts. I’m an “other.”
Or so I thought.
Then two things happened.
The first was in October, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was called onto the carpet in front of our nation’s lawmakers to answer for the financial crisis. The man long considered an “oracle” of the nation’s economy, according to the Los Angeles Times, told representatives that the current crisis exposed a “flaw” in his ideology.
"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms," Greenspan said.
Yup, the man who chaired the Fed for nearly two decades had been operating the whole time on a false assumption. He assumed that banks and other financial firms were too smart to shoot themselves in the foot. He believed, without question, that self-interest was the only insurance we needed to prevent this collapse.
The second thing that happened was that I began watching video installments of a college economics class. In the lecture series, Pepperdine professor Dean Baim uses the inflation crisis of the 1970s to discuss the concept of interest.
According to Baim, sometime by the mid-1960s, experts in the Federal Reserve had observed that interest rates went up whenever the demand for money went up. That is, whenever more people wanted to borrow money, lenders would increase interest rates. It’s the simple law of supply and demand at work: When demand goes up and supply does not, prices go up. It’s why Picasso paintings are worth more than posters of Picasso paintings.
So, because the interest rate tended to correlate with demand for money, the Fed decision makers decided to use it as an indicator of the demand for money. See the problem already brewing? Just because one thing causes interest rates to go up doesn’t mean there aren’t other things that can make it go up, too.
As it turned out, from the mid-1960s through the ’70s, there actually were other factors causing interest rates to go up. Increased government spending at a time of nearly full employment was causing inflation. (Basically, government was adding demand for products and services at a time when the country was already producing those goods and services at nearly full capacity. So, increased demand without a corresponding increase in supply created inflation.) That inflation, in turn, was causing interest rates to go up. (This, too, is a very simple dynamic. As Baim illustrated, if inflation is 3 percent this year and you think it’s going up even further, you’re not going to lend me money for 2 percent. You’d end up with less spending power instead of more.)
But the Fed stuck to its simplistic view that interest rates are an indicator of the demand for money. So they printed more money. With more money in their hands, people wanted to buy more stuff. But the economy couldn’t really make any more stuff. So the prices went up. That is, inflation increased. That, in turn, led to more hikes in interest rates. That, in turn, led to the Fed geniuses saying, “Guess we should print more money.” That, in turn, led to more inflation, which led to more interest rate hikes, which led to Fed experts pouring more gasoline on the fire.
In other words, the “experts” were stupid.
Decades later, the “experts’” stupidity strikes again: Greenspan and company clung to the belief that bankers wouldn’t shoot themselves in the foot by buying crazy-bad debt. Then the bankers did just that.
The inflation-related catastrophe of the 1970s and the current economic catastrophe both happened in part because experts clung to alarmingly stupid oversimplifications.
None of the economic concepts here are over my head. None of this is too difficult to understand. Indeed, just by investing a little time in learning about this stuff, I can --quite intelligently -- scrutinize the prevailing expertise.
I’ll be the first to admit that ignorance can be pleasant – downright cozy, in fact. I love not having to worry about every aspect of how my computer works. I love not having to worry about how my car works. I love not having to figure out how to get cheap electric toothbrushes out of China and into my local Target store. I love not having to worry about how to get electricity to my home to make a lamp work. I love not having to worry about making sure there’s enough cabin pressure in a plane I’m flying on. In all these cases, I know that there are people – an almost paternalistic presence – taking care of these things for me. I love that.
In all these knowledge sets, I’m in the ghetto. And I’m okay with that. But not with economics. Not anymore. For me, that subject is no longer clumped in with C++ and aeronautics.
It’s more like grammar: a subject on which I will no longer respect the fence between the so-called experts and me.