Friday, January 11, 2008

Among the Words

In today's edition of Slate Ray Fisman examines Bill Cosby's opinions concerning conspicuous consumption, at the expense of health and education, in the African-American community. This latest installment of The Dismal Science, "Cos and Effect," is subtitled: "Bill Cosby may be right about African-Americans spending a lot on expensive sneakers - but he's wrong about why." Okay, so far so good. Somewhat buried in the piece is the statement: "The Cosby explanation—that there is simply a culture of consumption among black Americans—doesn't quite cut it for economists." The rest of the article goes on to explain that EVERYBODY who has the resources to play the game, not just African-Americans, is engaged in the pursuit of status through "wealth-signaling" (the $10.00 - but much shorter - term for "conspicuous consumption" used in the article).

Perhaps I tend to be too precise in my use of a language not known for being exact in its meanings (if you think about the origins of the word "terrific" as opposed it its current definition, you'll see what I mean), but I think that Fisman should have said "peculiar to" or "unique to" rather than simply "among." Just because I say that something is found among one group doesn't preclude it from being found among any other group. Yes, you can assume that these meanings were implied, as the text supports such an assumption. But I've never cared for implication when journalism is concerned. Granted, Slate isn't a news site - it's a commentary site, and that carries a significant difference.

Part of it is that the statement, when first encountered is bland enough to easily pass over. For something that an entire article is devoted to refuting, it's not stated particularly forcefully. But the other part of it is that if you DON'T immediately assume that "among black Americans" is meant to also imply, "as opposed to everyone else," the article seems to be one hand clapping. It's working to refute a statement that hasn't been made.

The other issue that the article brings up, and perhaps this is the more important one, is that Fisman never actually quotes Cosby, or provides any context to say that the veteran performer actually thinks that African-Americans are more devoted to a culture of conspicuous consumption than anyone else. We know is that he feels that black Americans make poor choices when they spend their money on expensive sneakers, tricked out rides and ostentatious bling rather than investing it in their children's futures, but that doesn't in itself mean that he thinks of them as being uniquely profligate spenders. The troubles in the housing market do a lot to illustrate that poor choices are poor choices, even when everyone around you is making them. The fact that Cosby is criticizing the African-American community seems to be taken as de-facto evidence that he understands that other communities don't have the same issues, even though it's more or less irrelevant who else might be so afflicted, given that Cobsy is attempting to rouse his own people into more responsible action.

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