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What’s the economy, stupid?

The U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of just 1.5 percent from April through June, as Americans cut back sharply on spending. (Associated Press)

Memo to Romney: It’s not just the economy, stupid (Headline, Baltimore Sun)

For Mexicans, It Was the Economy, Stupid  (Headline, New York Times)

Today we look at the economy, or, more precise, “the economy.”

The Economy copyeditingObviously we write about “the economy” every day, as though we knew what we were writing about.  The simple fact is we really don’t know what “the economy” is.

The measurements – really, the estimates — we get from the government every quarter is of the gross domestic product. The figures are meant to represent the total value of goods and services produced in a quarter. Over time, we have assigned the annoying and often misleading term “the economy” when we mean “gross domestic product.”  Thus, we have ledes like the one above, proclaiming that the “economy grew” at a 1.5 percent annual rate. (The next quarter, the figure is likely to be revised up or down, although the revisions don’t get much ink.)

But that number means very little to most people who aren’t government economists or stock-market gamblers. I don’t mean to get all “common man” on you, but most people (or “folks,” if you’re an East Coast  reporter venturing into the “Heartland,” but I digress) assess the economy according to whether they have jobs,  how much money they make, how much it costs to feed their families and how much they have in the bank. This seems like a political statement, and you will probably hear such talk far too often before November.  It happens to be true, though.

So let’s stop this unnecessary shorthand.  If the GDP is rising at an annual rate of 1.5 percent, say so.  Don’t write about “the economy” growing. It’s so … AP.

If USA Today can do it, so can you.

(What you really don’t want to write is “The U.S. gross domestic product grew 1.5 percent in the second quarter.” You might or might not be surprised at how often that happens.)

While we’re on the “economy,” stupid, I think we can safely declare “it’s the economy, stupid” to be off-limits for the rest of the campaign, if not for all time. Every day, numbskulls all over the media think it’s a good idea to use the construction in their stories, or, worse, in headlines.

The phrase is often described as a campaign slogan for Bill Clinton in 1992.  It was no such thing.  James Carville, in “All’s Fair: Love, War and Running for President” (written with Mary Matalin), described the genesis of the cliché.  It came from a sign in the campaign office:

Note that Carville wrote, “the economy, stupid,” not “it’s the economy, stupid.” That’s enough to certify the phrase that’s usually used as stupid.  Don’t be stupid.

In Career tips, Featured, Networking.

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