Thinking about Collective Nouns

This semester at GMU, I am teaching two sections of international trade (Econ 385: International Economic Policy and Econ 390: International Economics).  In both classes, I began with a lecture (reiterated in subsequent lectures) that the focus of analysis is the individual: the government does nothing.  The decision-makers in government do something.  Ford Motor Company does nothing.  The CEO (or COO, or purchasing manager, etc) do something.

As such, these collective nouns (the government, the firm, the society, etc) can be useful shorthand so long as it is understood that the individual remains the focus of analysis.  But they can also be highly misleading.  In international trade, for example, nations do not trade.  It doesn’t make sense to talk about China trading with the US or the US specializes in X and Croatia specializes in Y (even as a shorthand).  Bobby in Boston buys a toothbrush from Li in Lanzhou.  End of story.  These transactions may be aggregated upward based on all the transactions that occur within some political boundary, but ultimately it is still individuals who trade.

When does it make sense to use a collective noun such as government or firm?  When the action taken calls for collective action.  In other words, when there is a margin being adjusted upon that the individual cannot adjust upon.

Perhaps an example will help.  Consider two men trying to load a heavy box into a truck.  The effort is not merely the summation of their two efforts.  If Joe lifts and then Richie lifts, the box ain’t going anywhere.  It is only through their combined efforts at the same time that the box is moved.  The two men working as a team adjusts along a margin (moving the box into the truck) that individually they could not do alone.

So, it makes sense to refer to a collective noun as a collective noun when there is some effort going on that only the collectivity can achieve.  Only Ford by its nature as a firm man design, manufacture, market, distribute and retail cars. It is the collective action taken by many individuals whose individual contributions are hard to separate from the collective goal; where anyone individually working alone would face costs too high to make the action occur.  The team of Joe and Richie does and Joe and Richie cannot alone do.  It makes sense to refer to them as a team.

The way international trade is discussed and taught is largely misleading if one is not careful about this subtlety.  International trade remains, ultimately, a microeconomic event.

4 thoughts on “Thinking about Collective Nouns

  1. Sometimes it works in reverse. Consider the meme of “single payer” healthcare. That’s a complete misnomer. There may be one remitter, but there are actually millions of payers.

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    • Ron,

      >—“It is far too easy to go astray using aggregates.”

      Yeah, so easy that I’ve caught you doing it a few times in ways you later regretted. On those occasions you didn’t really intend to attribute magical properties or unanimity to the aggregate group. And I understood perfectly well that you didn’t. You just lapsed into using conventional language the way almost everyone else does.

      As I never tire of pointing out, any time you have to claim that most speakers of a language are using their own language wrong, you are losing the argument. And, on those occasions, it’s not surprising you are losing the argument because your tactics are bad even if your goal is worthwhile.

      There is always a way to use conventional language to make your point. You can and should always avoid using language conventions you dislike or want to see become less pervasive. It’s even OK to argue the convention should change.

      The key mistake to avoid is telling people that the language they use really means something other than what they think it means because logic dictates a particular meaning. Languages are based entirely on convention, not logic. It’s convention all the way down. Convention trumps logic every time. This is why 100 different languages can use 100 different word to refer to the same object and make it work. Any good linguist could give you countless examples of language conventions that are illogical and yet everyone still understands perfectly well the meaning that is intended.

      When you tell people their conventional use of language is wrong you lose them right away. If they say that “we” decided something as a country so it is settled and you want to object don’t tell them they have claimed unanimous agreement. Because they haven’t. Just make your argument that there is a tyranny of the majority at play without claiming their words meant something they didn’t intend.

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