George Orwell really did see it coming. “As soon as certain topics are raised,” he wrote, “the concrete melts into the abstract.” Nowhere does it melt more quickly than in economics. Public discussion of the economy is a hothouse of evasive abstraction. Opinionators and politicians rarely name what they are talking about. Instead they waft into generalities they learned in Economics 101.
The President’s State of the Union Address was a case in point. The President boasted of the “longest peacetime expansion of our history.” That’s how pols always talk. It sounds like truly wonderful news. But what actually has been expanding? A lot of things can grow, and do. Waistlines grow. Medical bills grow. Traffic, debt, and stress all grow. We can’t know whether an “expansion” is good or not unless we know what it includes. Yet the President didn’t tell, and the media hordes didn’t ask, which was typical too.