We've never understood the term "McGuffin!"

FRIDAY, JULY 29, 2022

"Recession" joins the list: We're going to make a painful admission:

We've never quite understood the familiar term, McGuffin (or MacGuffin)!

In the highly literate circles we frequent, the term is most commonly used in connection with films by Alfred Hitchcock. Why haven't we ever understood what a McGuffin is?

Mainly, it's because we've read and listened to Hitchcock's explanations of the term so many times! According to the leading authority on the device, "Hitch" explained the term this way in a lecture at Columbia:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" And the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin."

The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" 

"Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." 

The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well then, that's no MacGuffin!" So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

In fairness, that lecture was given in 1939—and the master's films had never made much sense up to that point either! 

(Back in those days, college kids didn't walk out of lectures like that.)

We've never quite grasped the meaning of "McGuffin." As of this week, we may be forced to add the term "recession" to this mystery list.

As of last week, we thought we knew what the term "recession" meant. We thought it meant that the GDP had recorded negative growth for two consecutive quarters. 

As it turns out, it's nowhere near that simple. The leading authority on the term starts its discussion as shown:

In economics, a recession is a business cycle contraction when there is a general decline in economic activity. Recessions generally occur when there is a widespread drop in spending (an adverse demand shock). This may be triggered by various events...

Although the definition of a recession varies between different countries and scholars, two consecutive quarters of decline in a country's real gross domestic product (real GDP) is commonly used as a practical definition of a recession. In the United States, a recession is defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) as "a significant decline in economic activity spread across the market, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales." In the United Kingdom and most other countries, it is defined as a negative economic growth for two consecutive quarters.

As it turns out, we were right in what we thought, but only when visiting England.

Here in this country, a group of faceless bureaucrats have come up with a more complicated definition of the term. And not only that—according to the leading authority, "The NBER is considered the official arbiter of recession start and end dates for the United States!"

Apparently, here's how it works:

The bureaucrats throw data from five economic indicators into a wide-brimmed hat. At some future date of their choosing, they declare that we were in a "recession" at some earlier point in time.

Their declaration means that we were experiencing "a significant decline in economic activity spread across the market, lasting more than a few months," at that earlier juncture. This declaration comes to us rather late, and out of a Waring blender.

It's hard to say what's really gained by the use of this well-known term. Consider:

Under the old rules, everyone knew what someone meant when he or she said we were in a recession. Under the new rules, no one quite knows what the term really means, and no one knows who was involved in making the declaration.

"We've experienced two quarters of negative growth." What would be wrong with simply saying that, then adding in whatever other economic data seemed relevant?

We humans sometimes craft magical terms. It's hard to say just what the words mean, but people are constantly using them.

One more thought: We'd like to see Alfred Hitchcock explain the relativity of simultaneity.

While we're at it, what the heck? The NBER too!


  1. This recession has felt very British thus far.

  2. “It was all about Trump's "pathological narcissism," Conway heatedly said. 
    As far as we know, that might be the actual clinical case. But we were struck by the emptiness of a psychiatric / mental health / medical analysis coming from a multimillionaire tobacco lawyer.”

    Somerby is a (insert net worth) vanity blogger. He constantly engages in this kind of armchair diagnosis.

    Sure, Somerby says he’s just asking questions, if Trump might be mentally ill, but then proceeds to act as if it’s a settled matter, offering “pity” and “sorrow” and “there but for the grace of God”, etc.

    Meanwhile, the expert Somerby most often cites, Bandy Lee, continues to urge that Trump should be prosecuted.


  3. Ah, wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

    Does it call The Commander "sociopath" yet? Oh, and does it know what "womyn" is?

    Just repeat after us, dear Bob: THERE IS NO RECESSION. That's all.

  4. The reason why economists are hesitant to apply the old terms to today's economy is because there are some unusual circumstances that make the old standards less relevant. One is the pandemic. The other is global climate change. Some economists are unsure whether reliable standards will ever apply again to economies that are upended by changes never before exerienced on our planet. Can you call it a recession when drought changes patterns of agriculture in ways never before seen and it is unclear how farmers will adjust? Can you call it a recession when supply chain problems become permanent and interfere with consumer spending? The past indicators will perhaps need to be redefined and new, better predictors identified.

    Somerby claims not to understand things that turn out to be easy to understand. For example, a McGuffin is:

    "an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot.
    "the McGuffin in this intriguing comedy is an unpublished novel by a young writer killed in the war"

    Economics is hard to understand, especially when our planet is changing. What would be the benefit of telling the public we are in a recession when there is no decrease in public spending and the typical behavior during a recession is not present, even though the gdp has decreased for two quarters due to the Ukraine war? Would that be a meaningful descriptor or would it be a propaganda stick to beat up Biden with? It depends on who is wielding it -- and we all know that Somerby has been no fan of Biden.

    Or maybe he just wants to pretend that journalists are lying when they fail to call this a recession because economists disagree about what is happening with the economy now.


  5. Heh, lookie here, dear Bob:

    "Wikipedia changed the definition of recession to favor the Biden regime, and then locked the page."

    Quelle surprise...

  6. It’s not that hard.
    Hitch used it to explain the plot element
    that sets the action of the story in
    mention. We care about if Cary Grant
    is in love with the woman. We have
    only gotten to this issue because of
    what James Mason is doing with the
    the microfilm. Do we really care about
    what Mason is doing with the microfilm?
    Is it really interesting or credible?
    No. It explains, just barely, what all
    the fuss is about. If we found out
    Grant was really indifferent to the
    woman ( no lions in Scotland) then
    we would see the microfilm didn’t
    motivate anything and was
    meaningless (no Muguffin)

  7. I doubt Hitchcock understood the relativity of simultaneity. I understand it. David either understands it or can understand it if he studies Einstein’s explanation. I think Mao can understand it, too. I invite other commenters to study it.

    1. Really? You are impressed with Mao’s insight? You live in the basement of your Mom’s house?

  8. Thanks, Bob, for the timely reminder of media gone bad in the recent past. I'm off thread here, but who cares.

    It's become much worse, of course. You might have read this


    Quite alarming - to say the least. Sliding towards the sea, indeed.


  9. "“Federal authorities charged a Russian man Friday with a years-long malign influence campaign targeting American politics — alleging that he used American groups in Florida, Georgia and California to sow discord and push pro-Russia propaganda,” the Washington Post reports.

    “Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov, who lives in Moscow, worked for nearly eight years with Russian officials to fund and direct the U.S. groups, according to the indictment filed in Florida.”

  10. Meanwhile, the Republicans voted against a bill to help sick veterans (from Digby):

    "We know why they did it. It was a temper tantrum over the Democrats outmaneuvering McConnell with the big Inflation Reduction Act. This is what it’s come to. The “why do you hate the troops so much” Republicans impulsively voted against funding for wounded Veterans out of pique.

    Republican Sen. John Cornyn said overnight that he expects the bill will ultimately pass “in some form or another.” For the sake of veterans and their families, we can certainly hope so.

    But for today, it looks like a whole lot of GOP lawmakers turned a cold shoulder — for no good reason — to veterans who deserved better. As the editorial board of The Kansas City Star put it, Republicans “betrayed sick veterans” with a move that “boggles the mind.”

    It shouldn’t boggle the mind. The entire Republican Party has the emotional maturity of a nine year old."

  11. Somerby keeps claiming that if Democrats don't change, we will lose elections, but the polling suggests that voters do care about Republican wrongdoing and are shifting away from Republican candidates.