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Among all the green shoots, this one's a mouthful

The Monitor's language columnist muses on a new phrase from the world of finance: macroprudential oversight.

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Newsweek observed the other day how the continuing economic crisis has spurred a boom in strategic rephrasing. Someone may have suggested to US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that "toxic assets" is a contradiction in terms; he's now referring to the bad loans on banks' books as "legacy assets."

And last month he observed that he may oust the executives of certain banks needing "exceptional assistance," i.e., a bailout. He may assist them all the way to the exit.

The language seems to be leafing out in all manner of euphemism this spring. "Green shoots" of the economy, indeed.

The Newsweek item touched on another buzz phrase: macroprudential oversight. This one is less like a tender green shoot. It's more like an awkward asparagus spear too well cooked to snap off into neat bites when it's impaled on your fork. So you end up getting the whole thing into your mouth at once. It's a real mouthful, in other words.

And just what does it mean? Here's how Kirk Shinkle of US News describes it in a recent post on his blog, The Ticker: "It's a system-wide, holistic approach to monitoring the financial sector, and a plan that would undoubtedly mean aggressive new international regulation of the entire global finance system."

The world's 20 most significant economies signed on to the concept last month, but you're forgiven if you missed it. In the United States, many observers decry the "fragmentation" of economic regulation. US Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, wants an entity charged with assessing "systemic risk." Other observers have other worries. They want more "countercyclicality" – mechanisms to hit the brakes during booms and hit the gas when things are going too slowly. But others yet call macroprudentialoversight an unworkable scheme for "world government."

Macro is a combining form, from Greek, used to refer to "the big picture" – the forest, not the trees. Thus macroeconomics considers the national economy as a whole, for instance. But macro turns out to mean not "big" but "long," or at a stretch, "tall." Thus a macrobiotic diet is one meant to ensure a long life. And – this is the fun fact of my day so far – the ancient Macedonians, including famous Philip and his son, the all-conquering Alexander – were etymologically "the tall ones."

Prudence, the capacity to exercise sound judgment in practical matters, was one of the four cardinal virtues of the ancient Greeks and Romans – one of the virtues on which everything else turned (cardo being "a door hinge"). Prudential is one of those redundant-sounding adjectives that seem to have an extra syllable or two. What's wrong with plain old prudent, if you need an adjective?

All these words are rooted etymologically in the idea of foresight, including the capacity to foresee, or imagine, problems and to act to prevent them. Providence is a close cousin.

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Prudence probably isn't the most exciting approach imaginable to public policy. But it was President George H.W. Bush's approach, and that was his gift to the nation's comedy industry. It's not every day I do a Google search and bring up "Saturday Night Live" and the ancient Romans on the same results page. But with his ever-decorous embrace of Prudence, Mr. Bush has made it possible.


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