MARCUS: ‘Better off’ depends on grammar

As a Romance language teacher, I realize that I have developed a somewhat eccentric way of listening to my native tongue. Because the English “you,” for example, translates both the singular and the plural second-person forms of address, I make assumptions about the grammatical number of that pronoun when it is not indicated by context.

Hence my surprise when the answers elicited by the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” usually concern only the conditions of the individual respondents. To my Romance language-attuned ears, the “you” of the question is plural, and the addressee is the citizenry at large. Given the economic crisis into which our country was plunged in 2008 as financial institutions teetered on the brink of collapse, the auto industry failed, the stock market went into free fall and unemployment exploded, my reflexive answer to the “better off” question is an unequivocal “Yes we are!”

The refrains of “We’re all in this together” and “I built this myself” that emerged from the political conventions of the last few weeks brought to mind another of my ongoing rhetorical interests: the metaphor of the body politic, the notion that the polis is an organic unit, all parts of which are necessary to the healthy functioning of the whole.

In my research, I found the first fully articulated use of the metaphor by Menenius Agrippa, the consul of Rome, to quell an uprising among the Roman plebeians. He argued that the rebels should not resent the task of providing “everything for the belly” — Rome’s patrician elite — since the belly, in turn, nourished the entire social organism.

While his corporeal analogy for the workings of the state opens itself up to a vast gamut of ideological possibilities (Agrippa’s parable being clearly conservative and marking perhaps the first articulation of supply-side economics), it is the insistence on the vital interdependence of parts for the proper workings of the whole which I find most compelling as I contemplate the singular or plural meanings of “you” in today’s “better off” question.

I cannot help but see the literal manifestation of the body politic metaphor in the Affordable Care Act. The act depends on large numbers of healthy people paying into the system to help defray the costs of the catastrophically or chronically ill, in recognition of the fact that the well-being of our social organism requires a collective responsibility for the sick and weak among us.

Last week, NPR’s Marketplace presented a sampling of reactions to the “better off” query, and one of them contained a stinging rebuke of the question itself. The respondent railed against the self-interested materialism of the most frequently cited measures of well-being — employment status, salary and job mobility among them. Whatever happened to the Kennedy-esque plea for civic responsibility and commitment to the common good? he asked.

The respondent, like me, rejected the single household as the unit of measurement and understood that being “better off” required communal endeavors to improve the lives of us all. By invoking a very different philosophical premise from the one that originally gave rise to the question in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, the respondent unmasked the individualist bias of its formulation and offered a vision of genuine human and social connectedness as the answer to what makes a nation better off.

In other words, it all boils down to a question of grammar: Is the “you” singular or plural?

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