Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Job creators (or, derivational morphology and its discontents)

One notable linguistic consequence of this summer’s economic debate has been the rise of the term job creators, which has become a fixture of conservative talking points on the economy. While there is no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the term itself—its implicitly exclusive focus on private-sector employment, its espousal of trickle-down economics, its use as a euphemism for the wealthy and as an ideological cudgel in the debate on government revenues, etc.—perhaps its most pernicious property is the way in which it artificially narrows our attention when we talk about unemployment. Job creators, with its agentive -or suffix, seeks to answer the question of who adds jobs to the economy. Left unasked are the crucial questions of when and why jobs are added.

This obfuscation is a problem for anyone who is genuinely concerned about unemployment. Even if one concedes the point that wealthy individuals and private-sector companies are primarily responsible for job growth, policy makers must seek to understand when and why those people and companies hire new workers. As Paul Krugman has repeatedly argued, it’s not for lack of cash on hand. Yet the term job creators unhelpfully implies that any remedy must be directed toward those who do the hiring. Even commentators who question the term’s premises can be constrained in their analysis by its morphological makeup: for example, John Paul Rollert suggests this week that we are simply focusing on the wrong who.

English lacks derivational morphemes that indicate the when and why of a given situation or event. That is, when and why have no morphological counterpart to who‘s -or suffix; instead, we have awkward noun compounds like job creation conditions and hiring reasons. The morphological facts are mirrored in the syntax of English: subjects are obligatory in English sentences, but adverbial phrases indicating time and reason are optional and can be freely omitted. Informally speaking, we might say that the language makes it easier to talk about agents than about times, reasons, and conditions. This is where grammar and rhetoric part ways: while the grammar of English does nothing to prevent us from asking about the when and why of job creation, the morphologically ready-made job creators distracts our attention from them with each repetition.

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