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July 31st, 2022 (Permalink)

The Pull-It Surprise


Notes:

  1. Mark von Hagen, "The Pulitzer Prize the NYT Should Not Have Won", History News Network, 7/24/2003
  2. This refers to Janet Cooke; see: Mike Sager, "The fabulist who changed journalism", Columbia Journalism Review, Spring/2016

Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing and rearranged the order of the excerpts in order to emphasize points.


July 28th, 2022 (Updated: 7/29/2022) (Permalink)

Yes, We Have No Recession

Today, the U. S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its scheduled report on the gross domestic product (GDP)1, and it announced that during the second quarter of this year it was −.9%2. In other words, rather than growing, the GDP contracted by almost a full percentage point. The GDP for the previous quarter was −1.6%, so this is the second straight quarter with a negative GDP. This is important because two consecutive quarters of "negative growth", as it's sometimes oxymoronically called3, is a sign that we are in a recession.

So, just what is a recession? As with many economic words, it has two meanings: a vague ordinary language meaning and a precise technical one. As is the case with the technical meanings of common words, it's meant to capture as much as possible of the ordinary meaning in a precise, measureable way:

So, by the technical definition, the U.S. is now in a recession since the economy contracted in the first half of the year. Whether it's a "recession" in the ordinary sense of the word, I'll leave for you to judge.

It had been anticipated for the last week or so that the BEA's report would show a contraction in the GDP for the last quarter and, unsurprisingly, the Biden administration and its apologists in the major news media have been scrambling to play down the technical meaning of "recession"5. They keep pointing out that "two quarters of negative GDP" is not an official definition of "recession", but then there is no "official" definition. The technical definition, however, has been widely used for at least the last twenty years, as indicated by its entry in the Routledge dictionary4.

Way back in 1980, William Safire wrote:

The Administration's chief word-fighters promptly called in [Alfred Kahn] and read him the Riot Act…. "[R]ecession" was frowned upon as a word for economists of good will. Mr. Kahn got the message. He announced he had never predicted any, uh, "that word", and, being a man of puckish humor, added that whenever he felt the urge to reflect on the possibilities of recession, he would substitute the word "banana." He has since been heard to mutter, "The worst banana you ever saw." …

Calling a recession a banana is better than calling it a "rolling readjustment," a "crabwise movement of the economy," or…"a soft landing." The problem is that editorialists across the country have already begun to characterize every knee-jerk, cheery Administration statement in the face of bad news as "Yes, We Have No Banana."6

The economy is contracting and inflation is at rates unseen since the days when William Safire wrote the above. Let's just hope that we're not headed for the worst banana we've ever seen.


Update (7/29/2022): In the quote from Safire, above, he mentions some doublespeak terms used in place of "recession": "rolling readjustment," "crabwise movement of the economy," "a soft landing" and, of course, "banana". William Lutz lists several others, including the oxymoron "negative economic growth", "suppression of economic activity", and "temporary interruption of an economic expansion"7.

The Biden administration's doublespeak term of choice appears to be that the economy is "slowing down". For instance, here's Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Sunday, prior to the BEA's release of the GDP number:

Chuck Todd: Let me just start with this: Many businesses seem to be preparing for a recession. Should all Americans at home be preparing for a recession that many people think now is likely?

Yellen: Well, look, the economy is slowing down. … The labor market is now extremely strong. Even just during the last three months, net job gains averaged 375,000. This is not an economy that's in recession. But we're in a period of transition in which growth is slowing. And that's necessary and appropriate, and we need to be growing at a steady and sustainable pace. So there is a slow-down and businesses can see that. And that's appropriate, given that people now have jobs and we have a strong labor market. But you don't see any of the signs now. A recession is a broad-based contraction that affects many sectors of the economy. We just don't have that. Consumer spending remains solid. It's continuing to grow. Output, industrial output, has grown in five of the six most recent months. Credit quality remains very strong. Household balance sheets are generally in good shape. … Well, you know, I would say that we're seeing a slow-down. We're likely to see some slowing of job creation. I don't think that that's a recession. A recession is broad-based weakness in the economy. We're not seeing that now. … Growth is slowing globally.8

Yellen raises some good questions here about whether the current situation fits the vague, everyday notion of a recession. However, saying that the economy is "slowing down" mischaracterizes it. If GDP growth had simply become less than it was previously, it would be correct; if GDP growth completely stopped, it would be more accurate to call it a "halt" than a "slow-down". However, the situation is worse than that: economic growth is not "slowing", as Yellen said; rather, the economy is not growing at all, but shrinking. Making use of the metaphor of the economy as a moving object, that is not a "slowing down" but a "going into reverse". We're metaphorically losing economic ground.


Notes:

  1. "Gross Domestic Product", Bureau of Economic Analysis, accessed: 7/28/2022.
  2. "Gross Domestic Product", Bureau of Economic Analysis, accessed: 7/28/2022.
  3. See, for instance: "US Q2 GDP shows 2nd quarter of negative growth", Reuters, 7/28/2022.
  4. Donald Rutherford, "Recession", Routledge Dictionary of Economics (2nd edition, 2002).
  5. See, for instance: Kate Sullivan, "Biden dismisses recession fears despite US economy shrinking again in second quarter", CNN, 7/28/2022.
  6. William Safire, On Language (1980), pp. 26-27. Paragraphing suppressed.
  7. William Lutz, Doublespeak Defined: Cut Through the Bull**** and Get the Point! (1999), pp. 101-102.
  8. "Meet the Press", NBC News, 7/24/2022.

July 21st, 2022 (Permalink)

What's New?

I've added a new review of a not-so-new book to the book reviews page; see:

Book Review: Thomas Rid, Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, added: 7/20/2022.

The book is not-so-new because it was published two years ago, that is, 2020 B.C. (Before Covid). I placed it on the separate reviews page rather than here because it's of more than passing interest. Check it out.


New Book
July 7th, 2022 (Revised: 7/9/2022) (Permalink)

1984 in 2022

Quote: "…[T]he tyrants of classical legend were merely opportunistic hooligans, altogether lacking the sophistication required to alter the shape of the past. The twentieth-century totalitarian, on the other hand…is engaged on a far more sinister project: not to tell a man that 2 + 2 = 5 and make him pretend to believe it, but to convince him that it is actually so."1

Title: On Nineteen Eighty-Four

Comment: This book is not about the year 1984, but about the novel of the same name published in 1949.

Subtitle: A Biography of George Orwell's Masterpiece

Comment: Oddly enough, this is the second book that I know of to call itself a "biography" of 1984. The previous one is Dorian Lynskey's Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984, the New Book a few years ago2, which I'm ashamed to admit that I still haven't read. While Lynskey's book called itself "the" biography of 1984, this one is called only "a" biography of it, presumably because it's not the first.

As I remarked at the time, it's not literally possible to write a biography of a book, since books do not have literal lives, and it's only in a metaphorical sense that we can talk about the "life" of a book or its biography. Biographers usually wait until people die before writing their biographies, but books are different. As far as I know, no one has written a "biography" of Orwell's earlier novel Burmese Days, because few people read it today―I did, but I'm an Orwell completist―so that novel is figuratively "dead". The fact that there are now two "biographies" of 1984 just goes to show that it is still very much "alive". If anything, it seems more alive today than it was just a few years ago when Lynskey's book was published.

As I also remarked at the time, 1984 seems to draw increasingly close each year. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it seemed that totalitarianism had been discredited and democracy was spreading across the globe. Today, the totalitarians are on the march everywhere, especially in Russia and China but even in the United States, and democracy is in retreat. For this reason, we need to remind ourselves of the lessons of 1984 before it's too late.

Author: D. J. Taylor

Comment: Taylor is both a novelist and biographer of Orwell, so he has two credentials for writing a book about 1984, one literary and one historical. I'm afraid I haven't read his biography of Orwell, even though I've read more than one: there are too many for even a completist to have read them all.

Summary: Rather unusually, the book has no preface, foreword, or introduction, so I'm basing this summary entirely upon the table of contents and the first two chapters. The book is divided into three parts that cover the period of Orwell's life before he started writing 1984 (1903-43), while he was doing so (1943-49), and since the book's publication and his death (1949-the present).

Date: 2022

Disclaimer: I haven't finished reading this book yet, so can't review or recommend it. However, its topic interests me, may interest Fallacy Files readers, and should interest everyone who cares about the fate of freedom.


Notes:

  1. P. 4.
  2. See: New Book: The Ministry of Truth, 9/12/2019.

Puzzle
July 5th, 2022 (Permalink)

Crack the Combination III

The combination of a lock is three digits long. The following are some incorrect combinations, each of which has one correct digit though it is in the wrong position:

  1. 283
  2. 625
  3. 032
  4. 368

Can you determine the correct combination from the above clues?

WARNING: May cause mind-boggling.


July 2nd, 2022 (Permalink)

A Warning Sign1

Can you see what's wrong with the following sign? It took me a minute or two to spot it, so you might want to take some time to study it before reading on.

Boiling Water

What is "visual damage"? Would it be damage to your eyes after getting squirted in the face with boiling water?

According to the sign, the "visual damage" would be to the "tap top assembly", whatever that is, rather than to your eyes. Presumably, what the sign maker meant was "visible" damage, that is, damage to the tap top assembly―or should that be the "top tap assembly"?―that is severe enough for you to see. Apparently, if the damage is not bad enough to see, you just shouldn't worry about it.

Surely, "visible damage" would have been a clearer and more precise wording, but is it actually wrong to use "visual" to mean "visible"? In general, "visual" as an adjective means "of or pertaining to vision"2, and visibility certainly pertains to vision. Some dictionaries give "visible" as one of the possible meanings of "visual"3. Moreover, none of the reference books on common errors that I usually check warns against confusing "visual" and "visible", though that could be because the confusion is uncommon.

One of the few dictionaries that I've found that argues against the "visible" meaning of "visual" is H. W. Fowler's dictionary of usage. Here's the entirety of Fowler's entry:

Visible means capable of being seen; visual means pertaining to seeing. The visual arts are concerned with the production of the beautiful in visible form, visually appreciated. This differentiation is sometimes obscured by the misuse of visual for visible, for which indeed dictionary authority can be found. But the differentiation is worth preserving. For instance the wrong word is used in the descriptive phrase Diagnosis by visual symptoms; the method of diagnosis is visual, but the symptoms are visible.4

Furthermore, while it's difficult to spot the mistake―if it is one―in the warning sign, in other contexts it's misleading to use "visual" to mean "visible". For instance, suppose that you were scalded by the hot water and complained that you couldn't see the sign because something obscured it. Would you say that the sign was "not visual" or that it was "not visible"? Surely, all signs are visual or they wouldn't be signs, but some are not visible because of obstructions.

Similarly, there's a recent movie called The Invisible Man, about a man who could not be seen. Could it have been titled "The Non-Visual Man", instead? That suggests to me a blind man, who cannot see, rather than one who cannot be seen.

Logically, the relation between "visual" and "visible" is that the former is the more general word, and the latter more specific. It may not be, strictly speaking, wrong to call damage to the hot water dispenser "visual", but "visible" is more specific, and thus more informative. So, whether or not it's a mistake to use "visual" to mean "visible", the distinction between the two words is worth observing.


Notes:

  1. Thanks to Lawrence Mayes for calling this issue to my attention, supplying the photograph of the sign, and for versions of the examples I use.
  2. "Visual", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2022.
  3. For instance, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary gives "visible" as the third meaning of "visual"; see: "Visual", Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed: 7/1/2022.
  4. H. W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2nd edition, 1965), revised & edited by Sir Ernest Gowers; under "visible, visual."

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