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OFF TOPIC

WARNING: THIS POST MENTIONS OBAMACARE.

IT DOES NOT TAKE A POSITION ON OBAMACARE; IT SIMPLY USES THE OBAMACARE DEBATE AS AN EXAMPLE OF A PROBLEM INVOLVING “MACROECONOMICS.”

REMEMBER, I AM NOT TAKING A POSITION ON OBAMACARE; I AM CRITICIZING THE QUALITY OF THE DEBATE OVER OBAMACARE.

I KNOW – I KNOW! – THIS IS A MISTAKE, LIKE TRYING TO THROW A LAMBCHOP PAST A WOLF (ONLY THE GREAT WALTER JOHNSON COULD DO THAT).

BUT IT TOOK A WHILE TO WRITE THIS, AND IT SEEMS A SHAME TO WASTE THE EFFORT, SO HERE GOES.

AND GIVEN THE TRUE TOPIC – THE MISNOMER “MACROECONOMICS” – WHERE ELSE COULD I POST IT?

As the Protonothary of the Greater St. Albans Dispute Resolution Council, I am called upon to intervene in many lesser matters of public policy. In this capacity, I was recently listening to a discussion of the power of a local government to create, by fiat, a public purpose easement across private land.

As I listened to the highly technical debate, garbled in a manner that is possible only in West Virginia and certain parts of Iowa, I was struck by a thunderbolt, an idea so unfamiliar that I scarcely recognized it. In the midst of misinterpretations of arcane authorities and misstatements of local ordinances, I suddenly thought, “Gee, is this fair?”

And, of course, it was not; it was ridiculously unfair. So I sent the attorneys out to do more research – it keeps them out of trouble – and told everyone else to go home.

And, later, it occurred to me to be troubled by the fact that the “rules of debate” in this context had worked so effectively to eliminate the most obvious of considerations. It occurred to me that we circumscribe our thinking by unwitting adherence to conventions and norms established in strange and sometimes imperceptible ways.

And that unfortunate line of thought led to this unfortunate post, most likely doomed to meet an unfortunate end – but perhaps not until my children have read it and once again learned from the experiences of their old man. (If they can avoid my mistakes over the misbegotten decades, they will have a leg up on life!)

Anyway, this post will take an indirect route to thinking about how we limit the breadth of discussions in subtle ways – sort of like spotting a weasel; your best bet is not to look straight at it, but instead kind of squint and use the corner of your eye.


O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet . . . .


The standard interpretation of these immortal lines is that a name is unimportant – the true character of something exists separate from the name we give it.

But this interpretation ignores the context of these lines, a play in which love and lovers are doomed by . . . by what? You know the reference, right? So you know the answer: they are doomed by the names they are given.

Why pray, “O! be some other name” if the name is unimportant?

In fact, I have come to think that names have great importance, not for mystical “True Name” reasons, but because they create conditions and expectations that govern how people behave and how they are treated.

Quick Illustrative Rhetorical Quiz #1: Which pizza delivery guy will get the pizza to your house more quickly, the “Galactic Warrior Pizza” guy or the “Pokey Pony Pizza” guy?

Quick Illustrative Non-Rhetorical Quiz #2 Without research, fill in the blank (taken from perhaps the greatest of all plays):

“_______, thy name is woman.”

Efforts at answering this question can oft-times reveal more about one’s subliminal views toward women than one’s knowledge of the Bard.

(Forty years ago, my inability to remember the missing word so frustrated me that I hiked in from our base camp near some Anasazi ruins, got my car, and drove all the way to St. George, Utah, where I knew a library would still be open, in order to find the answer. Today we have Google . . . .)

Consider a case in point:

Suppose a new company had just emerged, with a name you had never heard before: “Google.” What ideas would that name conjure up in your mind?

Well, we all know the word “goggle,” which means “to stare with wide and protruding eyes.”

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/goggle

Another word brought to mind by “Google” is “ogle,” which means “to stare at.”

http://www.thefreedictionary.com/ogle

I think a picture is emerging, don’t you? And is it any wonder that, years later, we read that the now-ubiquitous company’s quirky yet playful (now retired) CEO has observed:

If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place

and


If I look at enough of your messaging and your location, and use artificial intelligence, we can predict where you are going to go. Show us 14 photos of yourself and we can identify who you are.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_Google#Privacy

Charming, eh? But predictable from the outset – it was written in the name; foretold by a force beneath consciousness and beyond reckoning.

Still dubious? OK, what would our theory predict about someone named . . . oh, say . . . Anthony “Weiner?”

I rest my case.

And now, with this background, consider the word – the name, if you will – “macroeconomics.” When you hear this word without knowing what it means (my situation), what does it augur about the ensuing discussion, what is its penumbra, what are its connotations? As you grapple with this unfamiliar concept, what qualities are suggested, albeit dimly, by its name?

Well, of course we all know that “economics” means something along the lines of “boring but important stuff.” That is old, tedious news.

But what about “macro?” And there, I submit, is the kicker.

“Macro” means “large;” it means “important;” it means “Hungry Man Frozen Dinner” (at least here in West Virginia – you know, enough beef ‘n noodles to feed a family of six or, alternatively, the average West Virginia guy). When you run into a “macro” thing you are in the major leagues; you are dealing with the big time.

So when we are thinking about some societal issue, the minute somebody points out that it has “macro”-economic consequences, the jig is up, that is all we talk about.

And this is unfortunate, because if you step back and think about it, macroeconomic issues are not really the absolute top tier issues that should concern us. Of course they are important, but for most of us – well, maybe I should not presume; let me say “for me” – other things are more important.

When I measure aspects of our society, I think first about issues such as, “Does this feature of society help our children thrive? Does it provide opportunity to people across all spectrums of society? Does it encourage a sense of community and a shared spirit?” I also ask, “Can we afford it?” – but in many areas that is a second-tier question.

Let me give a concrete example, involving Obamacare. I do not want to give a specific opinion about this divisive legislation; that is separate from my purpose here and beyond the scope of these boards (and, in truth, I do not know enough to competently evaluate the law anyway).

My point is that in the debate over Obamacare, we hear many macroeconomic arguments: “How will it affect health care costs? Will it be an undue economic burden on small employers? Will it result in decreased innovation in the medical technology sector? How will the influx of new patients affect the economic health of our hospitals and medical system generally? Can we afford it?” etc.

These are all legitimate and important questions, but they are not the only questions. For example, I believe that there are ethical questions that are more important – and I do not believe I am alone, or even in a minority, in this view. Will the legislation save lives that were being lost before? How many? Will it result in the provision of basic health care services to children that were out in the cold before? How many? Are there alternative, better ways to achieve these ends? How?

In fact, for me, many debates start with principles that over-arch any economic discussion. In this case, if we are denying many of our children basic health care – well, I want to fix it. Of course I want to fix it in an economically sensible way, but the prime directive is to fix it; if there is no way to do so at a reasonable cost, then I am prepared to pay an unreasonable cost. There are some issues that macroeconomics does not trump, at least for me.

So, as the debate rages over Obamacare, I find myself wondering where is the discussion about how many lives are saved, how many children live better lives, how many desperately poor families find new hope – about how we can best satisfy moral imperatives. I have no idea if Obamacare is optimal, or even effective, but I am discouraged that our public debate seems to be entirely a macroeconomic one.

And, because I know we are at heart a compassionate people, driven by many things besides pure economics, I end up focusing once again on the subtle, powerful effects of that name – “macroeconomics.”

Let’s right the ship, let’s reorder the language to reflect our priorities. Specifically, let’s do away with the word “macroeconomics” – from now on, we simply have “microeconomics” and “economics.”

And henceforth, let’s occasionally talk about “magnumethical” issues.

Rich

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