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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

race to the bottom

(1990’s | activese? bureaucratese? | “beggar thy neighbor,” “downward spiral,” “how low will you go?”)

According to LexisNexis, the expression originated in a very specific context: banking and financial regulation. The idea was that if banks were not regulated properly, they would engage in progressively riskier practices in pursuit of short-term profits, destroy some banks entirely, and weaken the entire system. That was the early eighties. Only a few years later along came the S&L scandals. Such swift and decisive confirmation of such a straightforward principle is unusual and worthy of note. “Race to the bottom” is commonly still used in political and bureaucratic contexts. President Clinton seems to have helped make it prominent, but it is not as closely associated with him as “shovel-ready” is with Obama, who in 2009 gave us “Race to the Top,” a federal education initiative. (You can tell a new expression has arrived is when it becomes fodder for adaptation and parody.) It was not just a phrase Clinton used regularly; it became a rallying cry for opponents of his trade agreements. Activists bewailed the tendency of nations to gut labor and environmental standards in order to attract short-term investment.

There does seem to be some truth to the proposition that we need governments to rein in our worst instincts where profit is concerned. Some bankers seem to revel in their failure to grasp the consequences of reckless speculation, or at least they convince themselves that they won’t suffer. Some other sap will get stuck with the bill (often as not, the sap is us). Even Bernie Madoff got caught eventually, and it would be nice to think that our financiers would have the brains to avoid hazardous gambles and sharp practice, if only in order to protect the gravy train. But there always seem to be a few.

Of course the use of the term spread, and by 2000 it was readily applied to other targets. Displays of sex, violence, and crassness in popular entertainment, especially television, were taken as evidence of a “race to the bottom” of standards of decency. A related target was tabloid-style journalism. And sometimes the phrase was used to talk about price wars and other familiar forms of economic competition. For the phrase always denotes competitive lowering of standards, each party intending to undercut the other(s). (It is generally understood to be deliberate — meaning that the perpetrator should be held responsible — and not merely an inevitable consequence of the widely acknowledged economic principle that greed causes people to do demonstrably stupid things.)

The race to the bottom is kind of like the slippery slope. They’re both foreboding phrases that describe what will happen, not what has already happened. Both bear relation to an older cliché, “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” because they envision a single event leading inevitably to a point of no return, followed swiftly by irrevocable and ruinous loss. Matters don’t always turn out as badly as advertised, of course. Yet over time decline is real, and its criers are bound to be right a goodly percentage of the time.

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