Wednesday, May 20, 2020


As I watched the House of Representatives debate its proposed $3 trillion relief bill last week, it occurred to me that no one was quite saying the obvious thing: We are all poorer now, and nothing the government does will fix that.
Megan McArdle. "We’re all poorer now. Nothing the government does can fix that."
This is going to be a post about language and baselining.

I find Ms. McArdle's use of the term "poorer" to be interesting, even though it is an accurate way of putting it. American English, as it is commonly spoken, doesn't require a positive, even when a comparative is used. It does, however, often imply one. That is to say, one can, as Ms. McArdle has, use the term "poorer" without someone or something having to be first "poor." But the use of "poorer" often implies "poor." And I wonder to what degree this sort of phrasing primes people to see themselves, either as individuals or in an aggregate, as poor. After all she could just as easily have noted that "We are all less wealthy now," and it would have conveyed the same point.
America’s per-capita gross domestic product stood at $58,392 in the fourth quarter of 2019. If that were to decline by a third, that would put our per-capita income back to roughly where it was at the end of 1993. Needless to say, 1993 was not a Hobbesian dystopia where lives were nasty, brutish and short.
But it was "poorer." And I wonder if that paints it as less desirable than it would appear if it were described as "less wealthy." Of course this all (quite literally) semantics, but I am curious about how the priming effect of such language works. If I say that Alice is poorer than Bob, and also that Daniel is less wealthy than Carol, how would a listener's mental images of Bob and Carol compare? Even though the listener knows nothing about how Alice and Daniel, or Bob and Carol, compare to one another, would they believe that they understand the ordering? While Daniel < Carol < Alice < Bob would be a perfectly plausible ordering of the four, would that be just as likely to come to mind as Alice < Bob < Daniel < Carol?

And this is where the baselining comes in. When we say that Alice is poorer than Bob, does it imply that both of them are poor, but in different degrees? Or only if it's also noted that Daniel is less wealthy than Carol? As you have likely gathered, I believe that it does in either case, but that could be just me.

And so I see an implication in that. An implication that 2020 and 1993 are both "poor," just in different measures, even though the positive measure of "poor" is never used to describe 1993 or 2020. Saying that to return to the GDP of 1993 makes us all poorer assigns poverty to it, even if we understand that life then was neither nasty, brutish nor short. In contrast, to say that one person, or one time, is less wealthy than another implies that both are wealthy; that they lie above whatever arbitrary baseline that divides wealth from poverty. But to say that we become poorer when we move from 2019's GDP to that of 1993 makes us poorer sets both of those times below the baseline. The tragedy is accentuated, as people become more acutely aware of their own feelings of poverty and deprivation and anticipate them becoming worse.

Or, maybe, it's just the language pedant in me, seeing a problem where none exists. Here's hoping.

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