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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

economic engine

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “economic driver,” “principal industry, etc.,” “catalyst”)

Somewhere in there, the mere act of job creation came to justify nearly any form of bad corporate citizenship, came in fact to embody our highest civic values, the framers be damned. “Economic engine,” less noticed but more eloquent, has been swept along in its wake. It made infrequent appearances in the 1970’s, nearly always referring to the U.S. economy as a whole, which was stalled (get it?) for much of the decade. Occasionally a wistful economist would talk about what we need to get the economic engine purring again. Our gross national product (as we called it then) was envisioned as propelling the nation, creating ever more prosperity for more people. The nation was the car; the money the motor.

The term has been demoted since then, even though you will still see it used that way sometimes. Now “economic engine” typically applies to a sector or an industry — even a single company, if it’s a big firm in a small town, or a product line within a single company, like iPhone for Apple. Or it may be an institution like a university or airport, which acts more as a handmaiden to prosperity than as its mother. It’s what helps make hiring and spending and stock prices go up, which makes the economists happy, so they don’t notice the looming crash, which by tradition takes everyone by surprise except the executives who sell blocks of stock just before it all comes tumbling down. But in the periods between crashes, everybody claims credit for being the economic engine, ginning up jobs and disposable income and keeping the money moving around.

It does raise the question of who exactly maintains the economic engine. At the level of a single firm, the economic engine is whatever goods or services bolster the balance sheet, so whoever’s in charge of that wears the mechanic’s overalls. But on a national level . . . Do you ever get the feeling that there are no greasemonkeys, or they’re on permanent break? An engine left to run on its own, without inspection or repair, forever? The trouble with metaphors is that they create their own consequences. And the fuel? Raw materials, a bewildering variety of assets, and . . . us.

job creation

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “expanding opportunities,” “filling job openings”)

Of course, they created (and destroyed) jobs in the olden days, and “create jobs” was a common enough phrase in the 1970’s, but “job creation” does not seem to have been widespread before 1980. By the end of the decade, it was the benchmark of economic success for public officials, and the solemn duty of businesses small and large, as it remains to this day. You don’t hear “jobs creation,” though it might pass muster in England. “Job destruction” has not become commonplace, but it’s not hard to imagine one candidate abusing another in such terms.

We forget that making a new job that never existed before is actually a lot of work. When a company prospers, more people must help carry the load. So what has to happen? The boss has to authorize a search, you have to interview candidates, the responsibilities of existing employees may need to be shifted around (or at least the furniture), forms filled out and filed, insurance companies notified and placated, etc., etc. “Create jobs” involves an active verb, but “job creation” makes it sound like the whole process just happens magically, with no human intervention. Positions called into being ex nihilo, as Jehovah produced the universe, with no more than a word. All the work of making work is concealed by this phrase.

So what? It only worries me because I’ve seen all of us become more and more alienated (to use Marx’s term) from the fundamentals of economic life as I’ve grown older. Sure, we have our jobs, we pay taxes, we save and spend. But the national economic engine is so huge and so abstract that we no longer have any sense of what’s really going on, or even what it bodes for us. The economists pore over the statistics — if they don’t look so good, don’t worry, they’ll be revised soon — the Fed has its meetings and makes its little adjustments, the mandarins assure us they have everything under control. Then one day everyone (well, almost everyone) goes over a cliff, and it turns out the economists didn’t really understand what was going on, either, or not quite enough of it. Expressions that further the feeling that it’s all magic wrought far out of our reach are dangerous; we need to be more aware, not less.

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