Is Someone’s Mind on Vacation?

CV1_TNY_08_04_14Chast.inddWhat’s up on 42nd street?

That’s terribly vague. So let me ask a more specific question: did The New Yorker give the entire editorial staff an extended summer holiday? I fear the answer must be yes based on the 6 pages or so of space wasted on John Lanchester’s story, Money Talks, in the August 4 issue. (Free access for the rest of the summer.)

Lanchester doesn’t like the language of finance. He says of it, “You are left wondering whether somebody is trying to con you, or to obfuscate and blather so that you can’t tell what’s being talked about. ” He’s only a bit right. The part about excluding you–“…so that you can’t tell what’s being talked about…”–that’s pure Bourdieu. Of course you can’t tell. If you were meant to know you would.

In and of itself that’s neither nefarious nor limited to the financial arena. If your doctor prescribes a course of action that makes you sick to your stomach you might be told you’ve contracted an iatrogenic illness. Would you really expect her to come out and say ‘What I told you to do made you sick?’ And yet in using the lesser-known word she has not been untruthful and she’s reinforced that she’s the doctor and you, the one swilling Milk of Magnesia, you are the patient. That’s how language is used to preserve social status.

But then Lanchester gets truly silly. In his own attempt at language creation he proffers ‘reversification’ which he describes as “a process by which words take on a meaning that is the opposite of, or at least very different from, their initial sense.” Here’s an extended bit of some examples he provides:

To “bail out” is to slop water over the side of a boat. That verb has been reversified so that it means an injection of public money into a failing institution; taking something dangerous out has turned into putting something vital in. “Credit” has been reversified: it means debt. “Inflation” means money being worth less. “Synergy” means sacking people. “Risk” means precise mathematical assessment of probability. “Noncore assets” means garbage.

Randall W. Forsyth has done a fine job of skewering Lanchester over at Barron‘s (paywall) so there’s no need to pile on. Yet it’s worth pointing out that either Lanchester’s course of self-study failed to educate him or he’s so in love with his project that he’ll stretch it to torturous lengths.

Sure, bail out means to slop water out of the boat. You do that to keep it from sinking which is what was done with the banks. Also, one should note that in both cases it’s plain English. Credit has meant debt since at least the 15th century when Luca Pacioli codified the practices of double-entry bookkeeping. Inflation has always meant money being worth less and risk is assessed in terms of probabilities in many fields beyond finance.

Granted, synergy and noncore assets are business-speak and junk English, but it’s pretty clear these are euphemisms. And of the two only synergy is truly meant to deceive. Noncore assets is actually a term that emerges from modern portfolio theory and is related to diversification which, again, is plain English. Anyone who cares to can learn this. I did simply by going to work every day for three years on the Merrill Lynch account.

Here’s why I wonder about the editors. None of what I noted in the last 3 paragraphs is earth-shaking. It’s readily available to anyone with a functioning intelligence, a basic understanding of how commerce works and who is willing to read the business pages. The New Yorker itself runs a fabulous column in the front of the book penned by James Surowiecki that has covered a lot of this in great, clear detail.

So why even bother with the Lanchester piece? I’m not sure who it disses more: Surowiecki or the magazine’s ‘s regular readers. It’s almost as though the intended reader is economically/financially illiterate and in need of a way to categorize and dismiss that which they don’t or can’t comprehend.

Which brings me to one final lament. For a very long time I have envied English-educated writers. Schooled at institutions less in thrall to throwing out a common heritage they draw on a wider range of literature than I’ve ever read. The New Yorker’s own Anthony Lane, perhaps the finest film critic writing today, is a prime example. I don’t know how he finds time to watch movies let alone write about them because he has seemingly read everything.

Lanchester’s article has reminded me that reversion to the mean is a real phenomenon.But I don’t want to end using statistical jargon and be indicted for obfuscation using some zippy neologism. So let me say it plainly, Lancheter’s piece was, at best, merely average. And not what I expect from the halls of 42nd Street.

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