Growing Concern

Let me be frank. I oppose “growth” and object to the “growing economy,” I take exception to “growing” companies. These terms—used chronically and uncritically by politicians and pundits—leave me vexed and perplexed. Why? Because I am convinced that “growing” is precisely what economies don’t do. They might increase or expand, but they grow not.

At some point in the 20th century, “growth” grew into shorthand for an increase or expansion in the amount of goods and services produced by the economy. “Grow” is now used as a transitive verb, as in Paul Hawken’s manifesto, “Growing a Business.”

Even as a metaphor, “growth” has its limits, soon apparent in the absurd, oxymoronic terms “flat growth” and “negative growth”. A governor of a large state recently declared he wanted to “grow” the size of his economy’s “pie”. Block that metaphor!

I hear your protests. “Grow” is a figure of speech, a metaphor, Mr. Ball! Why put this harmless butterfly of a phrase upon a syntactical wheel?

My animus derives partly from my role as the head of a “growing business,” a 136-year-old firm specializing in plants and seeds, things that really grow. Our long-term motto, “Burpee seeds grow,” is not a metaphor, but a statement of fact.

The indiscriminate use of “grow” and “growth” has profound implications for how we view our economy. The anthropomorphism of the “growth” term, endowing business and financial statistics with animate, living qualities, is imprecise to the point of being delusional. The notion of a “growing economy,” I suppose, puts color in the cheeks of pale, sexless numbers.

The use of “grow” or “growing” as a synonym for expand, increase, develop and enlarge is largely a 20th century creation, or growth, one that should be pruned from the English language.

Adam Smith, in his Wealth of Nations (1776), makes multiple references to “growing” and “growth”, but he is referring to seed (of all things!) grain, fleece or timber, not economies. Thomas Malthus, the unheeded prophet of the limits of growth, in his An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) , likewise applies the terms to, simply, things that grow.

TheOxford Dictionary of English Etymology defines growth as “Show[ing] the development characteristic of living things.” The word “grow”, I might add, derives from the Indo-European term word for “grass”. Tell me, is the economy growing like grass?

“Grow” is one of many terms that have migrated from agriculture into business. We speak of “seed money”, “hedge funds”, “yields”, and “plants.” “Share”, as in stocks derives from the “shearing” of sheep and, thus, a unit of raw wool. No surprise that the rise of agriculture back in 8,000 B.C., give or take a millennium, brought economies into being.

Not so many centuries ago, agriculture pretty much constituted the economy: economic growth and the growth of plants and animals were inextricably bound. The ancient Mesopotamian currency, the shekel, introduced around 3,000 B.C., was based on a weight of barley: 180 grains, to be precise. Seed capital, you might say.

I fear one result of using our “growing” terminology is that we ourselves cease to grow, because we’ve stopped thinking. Try this thought experiment: if the economy is growing, is the hidden hand of the market growing with it?

Talk of the “growing economy” is a pathetic fallacy: projecting our wishes and feelings onto external phenomena, resulting in angry skies, brooding mountains and roses that art sick. The effect belongs in poetry, not the economy nor in economics, that properly dismal science.

The notion of economic “growth” is pure magic realism. It’s as if we imagine that cheek-puffing zephyrs propel clouds, autumn leaves gaily cartwheel across the lawn, and water sprites dance in our water glass.

The economy represents and involves numbers and statistics—and precision. Innumeracy is a now serious issue in this country. The myopic, hazy, lazy thinking behind our talk of “growth” appears to be shared by our children, whose math skills are perilously close to those of their peers in debt-ridden Spain, Portugal and Greece. Unless we start taking our economic numbers seriously, the problem, not the economy, will only grow.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013 at 4:21 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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26 Responses to “Growing Concern”

  1. E M KLEKOTKA said:

    Thankfully there are people in education who can understand the grammar. I have run my own business with immigrants and none of us understand many of the words and concepts but we have had a tremendously successful business. Plain language has always worked for me. The author should try. It may bring more people into his way of thinking.

    • George said:

      Dear E.M.,

      Every once in a while I stray from the worn path. I was trying to make a point about the very subject of “plain language”. If “grow” and “growth” serve you better than “expand” and “expansion”, so be it.

      Thanks for posting.

  2. Emilie Miller said:

    If there is one thing I enjoy, it’s a good rant. And this one was
    Fearlessly picky! I ‘ll add it to my vein bursting lectures on
    forte. Will read you from now on.
    Emilie Miller

    • George said:

      Dear Emilie,

      Thanks very much. I don’t rant often. But it cleans the blood, so to speak.

  3. Ram said:

    For 8 years now, I have campaigned with the parents of my two sons’ baseball teammates to send their own children to Chinese language school on Sundays. Not one sent a kid in all these years. My wife and a friend – both scientists – started a tutoring center to teach math and the sciences to K-12 kids at very reasonable rates. Both if them groomed high achieving kids who went to the best schools on scholarships and they love science and really wanted to share their own successes and love with others. As you will likely suspect, many Asians and a smattering of Jewish parents send their kids, but not one Caucasian family sends a kid. This is dumbfounding (no pun intended). If this is the case in a wealthy, highly educated town in NJ, what can we expect of middle America? What do we want our kids to grow into? What kind of a country and economy do we want to – er – grow into?

    • George said:

      Dear Ram,

      Thank you for your interesting and thoughtful response. We have much to learn from such immigrant families as you mention.

  4. Kathleen vmy said:

    I couldn’t agree more!

    Yours is the first comment I know of to address this “growing” problem. The misuse of this word has irked me from the first time I heard it, and I STILL protest aloud when I hear or read it! Even our literate president speaks of “growing the economy.” Unlike many other terms that wrongly float into common usage with little objection, including mine, this one is an abomination and should be immediately expunged from all written and audible forms of communication.

    • George said:

      Dear Kathleen,

      Thank you so much! I fear that we won’t be as successful as you wish. But perhaps “growth” will go out of style soon.

  5. Keith Bradley said:

    It is a pleasure to read your remarks.

    • George said:

      Thank you, Keith!

  6. Pam said:

    The idea of “growth” as a solution also perplexes me. Wendell Berry said, “When going back makes sense, you are going ahead.” Going back to go forward is a reasonable path. But it is not the one we are on. The difference between manipulating the soil and sun to our benefit and extracting natural “resources” to power perpetual growth is fundamental. In both cases, growth is the object. On the farm growth follows a seasonal pattern, and alternates with cycles of death and decay. Cycles of nature are predictable; they are anticipated with joy. The cycles of man, in contrast, are analyzed in retrospect, often following some disaster.
    Maybe, on second thought, this is an apt comparison. Economic “growth” follows economic crash. Only we tend to forget that it’s a cycle. Until the next crash hits us.

    • George said:

      Dear Pam,

      Thank you very much for a thought-provoking response. I believe economies and societies eventually die, but over thousands of years, not a few financial quarters.

      Thanks again.

  7. C. Paul Bailey said:

    Vocabulary and Diction, two items that education has been forced to drop do to our “growing budget woes. Thanks your point is well taken by some

    Paul

    • George said:

      Thanks very much, Paul. Back to basics!

  8. Terry said:

    I enjoyed the Growing Concern; at least written by someone knowledgeable about this comparison. The last paragraph rings true today; so much commentary is, can I say ‘produced’ without any knowledge or reference to numbers or statistics. But the writer should watch his reference to ‘yield’. If it is not SEC yield; it should be referred to as a distribution.

    • George said:

      Thank you very much. I stand corrected. Please post again.

  9. Dianedigsplants said:

    I got a kick out of this, Mr. Ball. My son, an investment banker, speaks of growth as if one’s portfolio was a living thing, to be sowed, nurtured, and, (hopefully,) harvested. Perhaps we subconsciously harken back to our roots when our ancestors worked the land and wealth was measured by its yield. Today, the main source of fertilizer for the economic markets is that which is spread by the political winds.

    • George said:

      Thanks, Diane. I appreciate your thoughtful response.

  10. Wendy said:

    Absolutely!

    • George said:

      Thanks, Wendy!

  11. Steph Crow Hawk said:

    The real irony of the misplaced usage and vapid jargon is that our children, our farms, and our elders do grow…and our leaders don’t seem to want to pay attention to them. Various individuals in key places who are supposed to serve the people have harmed in the most egregious ways due to greed or a serious lack of skills set needed to do the job properly. They alloe our sacred foodstuffs to become nutritionally dimished and disrespect our elders who hold the vast knowledge of our collective experience. It is sad. It hurts my heart.

  12. Donna@Spartanburg said:

    I think the only thing “growing” is the manure pile !!We need men like you in our government.I’m posting your letter on my facebook .

    p.s. all my plants are still coming up every year .Thank you for making my garden Grow !!

  13. David Rabaut said:

    Check out a small book called “The Gardens of Democracy”by Eric Liu and Nick Hamauer which uses the metaphore that society is like a garden. It makes you think outside the box.

  14. DeAndre McCoy said:

    I couldn’t agree with you more on the current and unfortunate misuse of “growing” to describe increase in economies. I think you’ve done an admirable and amusing job. In addition to your points, I think you could say that politicians and pundits in general (whose pronouncements are excerpted and trumpeted continuously on radio, TV, and the internet) are largely responsible for the degeneration of modern English and the fuzzy thinking that that engenders. Such phrases as “growing the economy” were originally adopted to bamboozle the public and give the impression of being in control and of having an actionable plan (when, in fact, judging from the economic growth of the last half decade, nothing could be further from the truth). The expression then seeped uncritically into common parlance in much the same way as “respecting” or “disrespecting” something have. Keep up the good work.

  15. robert burroughs said:

    I tend to agree with your basic premise.
    But, I’m presuming that you and the whole Burpee
    staff are continually improving your product and
    customer service, as evidenced by your Fordhook outings, your innovative products, and your
    catalog. Fortunately or unfortunately as you
    improve, you’ll probably grow — oh-well!

  16. Joe Hepperle said:

    Very good article. I, too, abhor the misuse of ‘grow’ and ‘growth’. Since you are in a business that truly experiences ‘growth’, maybe you can help spread the word about the misuse of another word: Spectrum – as in ‘broad spectrum herbicide’. The word ‘spectrum’ carries with it a meaning of ‘seeing’ (e.g. spectator, spectacle, spectacles (eyeglasses), specter-spectre, etc.). An example of correct use is the phrase ‘Light Spectrum’. But the phrase ‘broad spectrum herbicide’ is very irritating to my possibly over-pedantic ear. The misuse of the word ‘spectrum’ seems to have started sometime after Latin class was removed from the list of required school courses.

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