Progress Is Our Most Important Product

“No one knows how to define progress in such a mixed-up situation.” And so began a U.S. congressman’s proposal to use stock market techniques to measure war progress.

Americans need progress. Or something that looks like it. This was nowhere more true than during their county’s second Iraq war.

One congressman found it in something called the Iraq Index. This included rates of monthly car-bombs, foreign nationals’ kidnappings, and things like the number of Iraqis with electricity and Internet access. The politico said, simplify this for Congress and give us something we all could use it to measure progress. “It would be like the Dow Jones” Industrial Average, he said. “Nobody accuses the Dow Jones of being biased.”

OK. Look at the Dow Jones average. It too works on an shifting target.

When first published in 1896, the it represented an average from twelve stocks of American industries. Now it represents 30, and includes only one from the original group, General Electric.

Rely on an index for the truth, is this a good idea? A simpler example than the stock market shows the risks of trying this. Even the murder rate can be cooked to mean different things at different times.

When I interviews New York detectives for my project, Catching Homicide, they explained how one year end city hall was under pressure to reduce the homicide rate. The number crunchers did this by changing the count of murders. How do you do that? I asked, bewildered. I mean, it would seem pretty clear than a dead body counts as a dead body.

What the Big Apple’s city hall did was to simplify counting homicide by tabulating incidents of murder rather than dead bodies. So, if several people were killed in a single event, the whole batch was counted as 1 homicide. And now the politicians could claim that yes, the official murder rate had dropped.

Like words, any index “means just what I choose it to mean” (to quote Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass) .

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Back in Washington the president was relying at the moment on a mantra, not an index. It went like this in daily recitations, inserted again and again into official statements.

“Iraq has made incredible political progress”

“We have seen encouraging progress”

“We’re seeing progress on the ground”

“I’m encouraged by the progress”

Getting a handle on Iraq, like getting a grip on the situation in Vietnam half a century before wasn’t going to happen through official statistics, be they body counts or an index. One military official was reported saying in Baghdad that progress is “not going to be a thumbs up or down. There will be lots of areas of gray.” Perhaps his words just reflected institutional thinking, but they showed that any index of progress would be disputed.

And that brings us back to this special word, progress, a word with so much magic that it blinds people to reality and conjures feelings of strength and security. In the depths of the problems for his country the president kept using it.

“American and Iraqi forces have made substantial progress”

“We’re beginning to see some signs of progress”

“We’re making progress toward peace”

“We’re making progress toward that goal”

Did the executive branch image-makers look at the company most successful in the use of this word. Multinational General Electric eventually dropped their long-running slogan, “Progress is our most important product”, and ultimately adopted the less assertive, “Imagination at work”.

More from Joseph JK . . .