Monday, September 22, 2008

The Only Constant is Change

Time has a way of altering the meaning of words and phrases. “Naughty” was once a much stronger term than it is now. In my musty, dusty, vaguely remembered teen days, referring to someone as a “vicious beast” would definitely be an insult. (Using those two words in conjunction seems a reach, even for the Seventies, but neither had a good connotation.) Now my daughter calls someone—me, one time—a “vicious beast” and it’s high praise.

“Bitch” meant female dog, period, until common usage made it a derogatory term for a woman. Yet to jazz musicians of my vintage, “bitch” was about the highest compliment one player could give another, second only to “monster,” which could also safely be called a pejorative under other circumstances.

This brings us to today’s lesson: “too big to fail.” When originally concocted, this term’s common usage meant a company had grown large enough, and diverse enough, that it couldn’t fail. No matter how bad one aspect of its business got, other, more successful pieces would keep it afloat. General Electric is be one example; General Motors another. (Companies with “General” in their titles were looking to achieve this status, generally speaking.)

“Too big to fail” has been evolving in meaning over time toward the definition it clearly assumed last week, with the government coming to the assistance of AIG. “Too big to fail” is now no outdated; the new term should be “to big to be allowed to fail.” Facing these new facts, the federal government probably can’t be faulted for looking for ways to prop some of these giants up. On the other hand, it might be nice to utilize some of the existing anti-trust laws—or create some new ones—so no companies can become so big we have to worry about the whole economy going down with them in the future.

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