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What We Mean When We Say "Grow the Economy."

EXAMPLE: "You cannot grow this economy from the top down. You grow this economy from the middle class up."—Barack Obama

Who is to blame for the habit, so common in Washington these days, of referring to the nation's net worth as something akin to a Chia Pet in need of watering? The president, Paul Ryan, and Arianna Huffington have all reached for the phrase. It appeared 45 times in The New York Times last year, compared with just eight times in 1992. That was the year that Bill Clinton popularized the phrase on the campaign trail, irking both grammatical strict-constructionists (who claim that "grow," at least in this sense, is an intransitive verb, and so oughtn't take a direct object) and small-government aficionados who were bugged by the implication that the economy's health was at the mercy of federal intervention.

"Grow the economy" may seem like empty language, but it actually represents a movement away from talking about the economy as a machine, so dominant through much of the twentieth century—we've got to prime the pump so the economy can be firing on all cylinders—and toward talking about it as something akin to a garden in need of tending. Eric Liu, a former speechwriter for President Clinton, believes that the financial meltdown has made this vision of the economy "much more intuitive for people." The Bank of England even brought on an ecologist who specializes in what happens when natural systems are interrupted by human interference.

The beauty of the phrase, however, is that the grammatical switcheroo from plain old "economic growth" turned out to be yet another Clintonian triangulation. Previously, economists who talked about the economy in organic terms tended toward a Darwinian outlook, in which nature would take its course. This lent itself well to the laissez-faire school of thought. But "grow the economy," with its implied human control, can accommodate both a big-government liberal's view of where growth will come from and a pro-business conservative's belief in fertilizing "job creators." "It makes sense that politicians would like the idea that a vast, complex thing like the economy in the twenty-first century can be managed from Washington," says Princeton economist Tim Leonard. If only there were so much agreement on how the thing ought to get watered.

WHO USES IT? Presidential candidates, speechwriters paid by the word, and pundits with a flair for mimicry.