Goalposts & Relativism

Last week, Q2’s economic numbers confirmed that we are not in a recession.

Sure, it’s a recession by how the dictionary defines it (two consecutive quarters of negative GDP) and how the Harvard Business School defines it (two quarters of negative GDP growth) and by all other visible means (waves of layoffs, high inflation, crashing home sales) but no, it’s not a recession.

We were assured of this by a torrent of ivory-towered journalists letting loose a preemptive wave of opinion articles declaring that there is nothing to see here.

We were additionally assured that all is fine by a Wikipedia editor who changed the article on recession to say “the definition of a recession varies between different countries and scholars” and locked the page from further edits. The White House even updated their website in case anyone headed over there to check.

The world collectively sighs in relief. The layoffs, price increases, company bankruptcies, and gas prices don’t matter, after all. We’re in a thriving economy!

Why definitions matter…

Years ago, before Anya and I started Discosloth, I had a normal job.

As a marketer, my primary KPI (that’s “key performance indicator”…it’s what MBAs call “goals”) was bringing new leads to the company. My base salary wasn’t anything to write home about, but I’d negotiated what (I thought) was a solid performance-based incentive plan. We established a baseline for current lead volume, and clearly defined future thresholds at which point I’d get significant salary increases. 

I passed the first lead threshold, and I was excited about my upcoming bigger paycheck. I was 26 and hungry. 

But then, I learned I wasn’t getting that salary bump. Despite increasing the amount of leads beyond that first threshold, the powers that be (the powers that had been?) decided to change the definition of a lead.

Goalposts weren’t just moved back…they were morphed entirely.

Instead of kicking a football through goalposts, I now had to kick a baseball through a basketball net.

By changing the definition of a lead, not only was it now mathematically impossible for me to ever cross the threshold, but I realized that as soon as I did, the definition of a lead would just change again.

I learned an important lesson, when the goalposts were switched around. Two, perhaps. The first was that I learned about creative accounting. Who knew real numbers could lie? The second was that, when you write a contract with lead-based compensation, you probably need to define just exactly what a lead is.

Fallacies of definition

The problem around arguing with people who say definitions have no definition is that they then go about changing those definitions on you all the time.

In debate, this is a fallacy of definition — using words that are overly broad or ambiguous. 

You’re not arguing with an actual idea when this happens. You’re arguing with an amorphous feeling. You’re punching a jellyfish.

See, fluid definitions are not great definitions.

At some point, linguists got hold of language and cunningly decided that meanings change (of course they do) and somehow that’s been twisted into a relativistic, subjective logical mess. 

Of course meanings change according to societal norms. But the actual thingdoesn’t change. The thing still exists. You just have to use different words to describe the same thing.

So I guess we’ll have to accept that a recession doesn’t currently exist.

Two quarters of negative GDP does still exist (at least, until they redefine what GDP is, or perhaps what a quarter year is).

If definitions are fluid, if everything can be redefined, if meaning has no permanence, all that happens is that goalposts never pause. They flicker around like whack-a-moles.

In my job, my “lead” volume went down, and I didn’t get my bonus. But at the end of the day, well all knew, in the deep recesses of our hearts, that I’d brought more leads-as-previously-defined to the table. Eventually, I lost my motivations, lost my incentives, and did the logical thing and quit.

And at the end of the day, maybe we’re not in a recession. Who am I to define a recession? 

But we have had two quarters of negative GDP growth, and everyone knows, in their bones, how the economy is really doing.

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