Saturday, April 18, 2009

Weasel Words: an essay

Reading the recent column on “Magic Words” by the brilliant economist Dr. Thomas Sowell put me to thinking about the subject.

Words have power. The power to inspire. Men have fought and died for words, from soldiers and heroes to gang members ready to kill over being “dissed.” Words have the power to hurt, as any teen outcast or rejected suitor can tell you.

And a facility with words can bring you fame, fortune and power, as President Obama has most recently made manifest.

But words often do not have precise meanings. And, in fact, it is often the successful political candidate who finds words which inspire voters’ support, by meaning whatever the hearer wants them to mean.

Precise words get politicians in trouble. It’s widely assumed that President George H. W. Bush’s famous, “read my lips—no new taxes” pledge cost him re-election, when he was forced to agree to a tax increase proposed as part of the budget by the Democratic-controlled Congress. It remains to be seen if President Obama’s campaign pledge that voters earning under $250,000 wouldn’t pay a penny more in taxes if he was elected will be hurt by his more than doubling the cigarette tax, which hits poor folks the hardest, and thus is a “regressive” tax supposedly hated by liberals (until they need money for pet projects).

So a great part of the political art is to find words that inspire voters, but which mean whatever the hearer wants them to mean. This helps you hold disparate coalitions together, at least until after Election Day. Barack Obama successful tied his campaign to two of these words, “hope” and “change.”

We all want “hope,” so it’s a great word. But we all hope for different things, of course. According to the results, 55 million of us were hoping that John McCain would be elected President. Obama didn’t do much for that hope.

And “Change” is a constant. The only way to lose on that one is to promise no change, because the world changes willy-nilly around us, with increasing celerity, wanted or not. It’s pretty powerful if folks are unhappy with what has happened recently, though the voters are rarely paying enough attention to understand who or what caused the things they are unhappy with. One might say that if it wasn’t for the nescience of voters, few politicians would get elected.

No electorate in the world wanted “change” more than the Germans in 1932. And they got it—good and hard!

What are some other weasel words without precise meanings, which sound wonderful to voters?

Fair: We all want to be fair, but what does fair mean? Suppose four guys go out to lunch, and split the check four ways. Is that fair? Suppose one had a tuna sandwich, and another had lobster? Then maybe it would be fair to say that each pays for what he eats? But suppose one of the guys makes $100,000 a year and the others make only $50,000. Would it be fair to say the one who makes the big bucks should pay twice what the others do, regardless of what he eats, because he makes more? You probably wouldn’t think it was “fair” to ask your friend to pay for your meal, though an increasing voting bloc feels it is very fair to ask other people to pay for things they want.

Let’s take another example. Suppose 100 adults with jobs live on your street. And you get together and decide that it would be wonderful if you had a new playground that would cost about $10,000. So you vote and the new playground wins.

Then you have to vote how much each person should chip in to buy the playground, and the vote goes like this:

Five of the adults are charged a total of $6,000 for the playground everyone will use.

Another 45 of the adults have to get together and chip in an additional $3,700.

And the last 50 adults have to pool their resources and come up with $300 between them. Is that fair? (That was the US tax code in 2006.)

Well, President Obama and his Social Democrat Party said no way is that fair. Those five people have to come up with a lot more money than just $6,000, so the 45 pay less, and the 50 who were paying $300 now pay nothing.

Under that help-the-rich guy George Bush and the Republicans in 2006, 5% of Americans—those with incomes over $153,000, paid 60% of the taxes, while the bottom 50% of Americans paid 3%. (IRS figures.)

Once more than 50% of the public pay nothing, what is to stop them from voting to take everything from those who pay more? And all in the name of being fair.

Rich: While we are on the subject of money, what is “rich”? The old joke is that an alcoholic is some one you don’t like, who drinks more than you do. For the most part, “rich” is, “compared to whom?” Compared to Barack Obama and John McCain, I’m poor. Compared to Bill Gates and George Soros, I’m dirt poor. Compared to a college student living with four other students in a one-bedroom apartment, I’m very rich.

College students, in fact, are among the poorest adults, but will often end up in the top 25% of incomes later in life. Only a small percentage of Americans who are in the bottom 25% at any time will stay there their entire lives, and many move to the top 25%.

And compared to hundreds of millions of people living in third world countries, most of the “poor” in America are rich beyond their dreams.

According to Candidate Obama, the “rich” are the top 5%, who he thinks, contrary to IRS numbers, are making over $250,000 a year. It was quite brilliant. Promise 95% of the people that if they vote for you, you’ll make the other 5% pay for everything they want. That he didn’t get 95% of the vote one attributes to older voters who learned math and had a feeling of déjà moo (I’ve smelled this BS before).

Still, as Oscar Ameringer said, “Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other.” So I suppose politicians will continue to get elected by attacking the “Rich”—whoever they are.

Justice: Do you believe in justice? Of course, we all do. The problem is that none of us really know what “justice” is.

Young thugs out for a joy time of breaking windows, torching cars and looting stores like to chant, “No Justice, No Peace.” Not that they are eager to see justice done for those whose property is destroyed. But it cloaks their vandalism in the guise of a noble cause, so they can enjoy destruction while feeling good about themselves.

And “Social Justice” is politician speak for “I’ll take his property or money and give it to you, because he doesn’t deserve to have all that while you have less.”

Is justice giving an accused criminal every possible chance to defend himself? Sure. How about every possible legal maneuver to drag out the proceeding for years? Ah, maybe. How about if dragging out the proceedings for 10% of the criminals means the courts are so clogged that the other 90% get to go free or plea bargain their sentences down? How about if the technicalities of giving the accused 100% justice, to the Nth degree, puts a murderer back on the street—and you are the next victim? Has justice been done? Does not more “justice” for criminals mean less justice for victims? If the courts act in a way that gets you, an innocent person, killed, has justice been done?

I think there is so little of what I call “justice” for the decent, law-abiding folks in today’s world, that the only thing stopping the rise of vigilantism is that those decent folks have been raised to be law abiding. But the popularity of movies like Gran Torino and songs like Beer for my Horses means a lot of the folks who are the foundations of this country feel there is too much “justice” for the thugs, gang-bangers and parasites, and too little for them. So vigilantism may be coming. We’ll see if it brings “justice.”

Reform: I’m certainly for reform. In fact, when I upset an incumbent state senator named Joe Ward by nine votes out of 60,000 back in 1972, “Government Reform” was one of the three planks I ran on. I bet you are for “reform” as well. In fact, almost any change a politician promotes is said to be a “reform.”

Here in Illinois, due to bi-partisan corruption, they’ve reformed government so many times, that we taxpayers can hardly afford anymore reform.

Were the issues I supported reforms? Alas, reform, like pornography, is in the eye of the beholder. One of the “reforms” I supported was reducing the size of the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 240 members to 160. The idea was to reduce cost, make legislators more visible, increase the prestige of the individual Representative, and make the legislative process more efficient and streamlined. That it was hated by the professional politicians, 80 of whom (mostly Democrats), were going to lose jobs, was no small part of its appeal. That the public strongly supported it, and my opponent had voted against it (thus defeating it by one vote in a confused legislative situation) made it an especially handy club for me to bludgeon him with.

But, if I were in the Commonwealth today, I could offer a new “reform.” Let’s increase the size of the Massachusetts House from 160 to 240 Representatives. It will make the individual legislator closer to his constituents. It will give more opportunity for minorities to have a voice in the house. It will provide a broader range of experts in the legislature to speak to increasingly-complex subjects. Give me a minute, and I’ll think of a few more reasons why going the other way would also be a “reform.”

So, think carefully when you hear some candidate like me propose a “reform.” Every change a politician suggests is pictured as a reform. After all, Rod Blagojevich ran as a “reformer.”

Affordable: We all believe that people should have “affordable” housing, “affordable” healthcare, “affordable” heating and “affordable” food.

And they do. If you are living in some shelter, even a tent, or are one of five students in a two-room apartment, and are paying for it, you have “affordable” housing. And you have “affordable” healthcare—that is, as much as you can afford, and are willing to pay for. If you are eating, you have “affordable” food—you afforded it, didn’t you.

What “affordable” means when a politician says it, is that he is going to give you more of something you want more of, and make someone else pay for it!

There are exceptions, but most folks would like to have a home that was a bit bigger, nicer and in a better location than the one they have. And once that larger, nicer home is “affordable” for you, it’s not too long until you start wishing that something a bit larger was “affordable.”

I read that between 1970 and 2005, the average size of a new American home increased by 50%. Garages used to be one car, then two, now a lot of middle class housing is built with three car spaces. Most people didn’t have air conditioning in 1970—I was 36 when I lived in my first air conditioned home, because I moved to Florida.

If you have a family of five, living in a non-air-conditioned, three bedroom, 1,200 square foot home without a garage, which you can afford, doubtless you’d like the taxpayers to make a 2,500 foot, 4 bedroom home with AC and a garage “affordable” for you at the same cost. And so it goes.

As Dr. Sowell has often pointed out, cities where the politicians have promised to make housing more “affordable” through rent control, like New York and San Francisco, have the most expensive housing in the country. Builders want to make more money to “afford” more things for their families. So they shift building investment dollars to luxury apartments and condos, not covered by the controls, from standard apartments.

And it was the demand to make housing “affordable” by forcing banks to give loans to people who couldn’t pay, through the Community Reinvestment Act, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that was the first domino in the current economic downturn. All that really helped poor folks, right? Maybe by making everyone poor through a housing bubble and 401k collapse.

Healthcare: Okay, you say, you've got me here. Everyone knows what healthcare means, right? Sure. But what are the parameters? Any honest economist will tell you that the cheaper a desired good or service is, the more the demand for it is. And if it’s free, the demand goes way up. (Why don’t teenagers turn off the TV and lights, or shut the door when they come in? Because electricity and heat are a “free good” for them—they aren’t paying the bills.”)

As healthcare gets cheaper, people use more of it. Which is why insurance companies want deductibles and co-payments.

I want my employer to have a doctor in our office, who will be available at a moment’s notice if I feel ill, give me a physical once a month, run a CT & MRI every three months and dispenses no-cost prescriptions to me as needed—or as desired. Ridiculous, you say? Why would you say that? It certainly qualifies as good “healthcare” and did not candidate Obama say that “Healthcare is a Right”? So, I only want my rights here. And I want it to be affordable—I want someone else to pay for it.

With a nod to Maggie Thatcher, the problem with “affordable” is you eventually run out of other people’s money to pay for everything you want to be able to afford.

Freedom: Let’s end with this, because conservatives like me tend to throw “freedom” around more than liberals. Everyone is in favor of Freedom in principle—just not in practice. The problem is, again, defining freedom. Sowell says it boils down to the right to do something other people don’t want you to do, and that’s probably as close as we can come.

So liberals don’t want you to have the freedom to own guns, and while they claim to be big supporters of the First Amendment, Freedom of Speech is banned on liberal run campuses, and left leaning countries in Europe (plus Canada) because speech that offends some group is banned as “hate speech.” The UN wants to ban “defamation of religion” at the behest of Muslims—who you can be sure will go on saying the vilest things about Jews and Christians in their own countries. It has gone so far that in some places, a non-Muslim can be charged with hate speech for accurately quoting the Qur’an and the Hadith. Dare you say that Muhammad had sex with his youngest wife when she was nine? Nope, hate speech, though it’s reported in the Muslim holy works (the Hadith) and is the basis for allowing 45-year-old men to marry nine-year-old girls in many Muslim countries.

Conservatives don’t want Gays to have the freedom to marry each other, or people to have the freedom to read anything they consider pornographic. (And liberal feminists as well, on the last point.)

Of course, every society puts restrictions on freedom to protect the rights of others. One can’t murder someone with impunity. Or so we hope. In the old days, blacks could be murdered with impunity by white racists in many areas, but thankfully, those days are over. Now, in our enlightened times, black children can only be murdered with impunity by black gangbangers in areas where intensive policing is prohibited by charges of racism. That no doubt makes a huge difference to the victims.

That some restrictions on freedom are clearly necessary to protect others gives those who would restrict freedom the cover to decide what is best for others. Conservatives fighting the freedom of Gays to marry, or the freedom of people to see X-rated movies are doing it “to protect society” as are liberals trying to ban guns. And let’s not get into the struggle between the freedom of a woman to control her own body and the freedom of a child to be born.

I generally come down on what I believe is the side of the greatest freedom. But when any of us says “Freedom,” as with other words that sound wonderful, the devil is in the details.

Or, as Lincoln might have said, “With the right weasel words, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time—and those are pretty good odds on Election Day!”

1 comment:

  1. I read your blog and wonder if you pulled the thoughts out of my head! Let's hope we can make a change.