Memecheck – the New Normal

A while back we had a look at the budding of ‘green shoots‘ as a meme…and then had a crack at the IMF’s ‘internal devaluation‘ (yet to grab the public’s imagination). Here’s a look-in at another meme du jour “the New Normal”.

Following is the chart from Google trends…

New normal Google Trends

Somewhat disconcertingly for an all ‘new’ and improved meme, this one has a long history – and has been applied to everything from fishing tackle to men’s lingerie. Still, there is no denying the scrub fire that has taken hold over the last 6 months in its use in the financial media landscape.

It’s hard to pin down the exact point of its recent emergence into popular consciousness. There seems to be a speedbump in news references in February 2009. Around this time McKinsey started to apply the term to the global economy and by March the firm’s global MD had written an article specifically on the topic. Let’s give the firm first points then (though to be fair, they weren’t the only ones, with the likes of the National Consumer Assoc using the term to refer to changes in consumers spending patterns due to the recession).

Seems like the contenders for ‘most influential in bring the meme to the masses’ are:

1) Walmart’s CEO, Mike Duke, who has been a serial offender.

June 5, 2009, at Walmart’s AGM – “There is a ‘new normal’ in which people want to save money”

August 13, 2009, on the release of Walmart’s results “There is a new normal now where people are saving more, consuming less, and being more frugal”.

September 10, 2009, at a Goldman Sachs conference – “This new focus on frugality, and especially on the deferral of purchases for things that aren’t needed right now, are the new normal.”

2) And a group of commentators in the red corner that took the phrase as their own from around May – the most prominent of these must be Pimco’s Bill Gross here and here and Mohamed El-Erian here. But there is a smorgasbord of bloggers and commentators who have then taken their lead and recycled it (for example, John Maudlin ‘answered’ Gross article back in June but as I say, he is one of many).

It’s kinda interesting to speculate who has the power to become a mememaker. In the above example, I’m giving it to the Duke – not just for the close correlation between his public use of the phrase and its appearance in the media, but also for incorporating two cliches in the one sentence – twice (‘frugal’ really is a lovely word so we can’t blame him for that).

So finally a couple of gross generalisations on the making of a meme:

1) If they are created by politicians – they generally serve as euphemisms that capture a negative and neutralise it, if not turn it into a positive. For example, consider one from Australia’s greatest living mememaker, the former Treasurer/Prime Minister Paul Keating – the ‘J curve’. This was apparently the path that the Australian economy would take out ‘the recession that we had to have’ (another Keatingism).

2) If they are created by bureaucrats – they are generally intended as a barb into the prevailing mood. I’m thinking of Greenspan’s ‘irrational exuberance’ as the best know example.

3) They must border on being non-sensical – with a grain of truth to sustains the image. I guess it’s similar in concept to the impenetrable Chinese proverb. The more incomprehensible, the more likely that they can be taken for some universal truth.

Editor TTD
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