Monday, January 17, 2005

The High Ground of Language: "Privatization"

This post inaugurates an occasional series about language and politics. One of the tenets of this blog is: If you don't think about language, it will do your thinking for you.

"Orwellian" is an overused term, but it begs to be applied in two bits of wordplay to watch in the excerpts below. The first is skirmishing over the word "privatizing" Social Security. As Princeton economist and NY Times economist Paul Krugman points out in a Rolling Stone interview below, the "P-word" was originally a shibboleth among the anti-Social Security right for their preferred alternative, attractive to them because the "private" theme carried with it the rejection of government--especially the hated Big Government. But when it was found by the Cato Institute (libertarian, but hand-in-hand with the Bush administration on this topic) not to produce the proper response in focus groups, it was expunged--not just from further use, but also from all records of past use. Bush's attempt this week to distance himself from the word that's been proscribed by the official talking points has an almost Abbot and Costello feel to it.

Note also Bush's use of the word "editorializing" when a Washington Post reporter asks about Bush's "privatization" plan--another genuinely Orwellian moment: The ordinary sense of "editorializing" refers to injecting opinion, as opposed to objectively or dispassionately reporting. Bush stands the word on its head: When he chides the Post reporter for "editorializing," he's reminding the reporter to be a docile stenographer, warning not to use language the Right has ruled out of bounds--even if it's accurate and appropriate, and even if Bush himself has used it.

Exhibit 1: Rolling Stone interview with Paul Krugman:

[Rolling Stone:] In selling the idea that there's a crisis, Bush has a lot of powerful words on his side: "choice," "freedom," "ownership society." What words do you have to counter his sales job?

[Krugman:] Scam. Three-card monte. I've been thinking a lot about flying pigs. The privateers are claiming that you can have something for nothing. They're basically saying, "Let's assume that pigs can fly." And when you say, "You know, it's not good to assume that pigs can fly," they respond by saying, "What's wrong with you? Don't you understand the enormous advantage of flying pigs?"

The only reason they talk about how wonderful an ownership society would be is because we managed to win the battle over the word privatization. The Cato Institute - which is the intellectual headquarters for all this stuff - founded something in 1995 called the Project on Social Security Privatization. But focus groups don't like that word, so in 2002 they changed the name to the Project on Social Security Choice. They didn't announce a name change - they just went back and scrubbed their Web site, so there's no indication that it was ever called "privatization."

Exhibit 2: Interview with the President on Air Force One:

The Post: Will you talk to Senate Democrats about your privatization plan?

THE PRESIDENT: You mean, the personal savings accounts?

The Post:
Yes, exactly. Scott has been --

THE PRESIDENT: We don't want to be editorializing, at least in the questions.

The Post: You used partial privatization yourself last year, sir.


The Post: Yes, three times in one sentence. We had to figure this out, because we're in an argument with the RNC [Republican National Committee] about how we should actually word this. [Post staff writer] Mike Allen, the industrious Mike Allen, found it.

THE PRESIDENT: Allen did what now?

The Post: You used partial privatization.

THE PRESIDENT: I did, personally?

The Post: Right.


The Post: To describe it.

THE PRESIDENT: When, when was it?

The Post: Mike said it was right around the election.


The Post: It was right around the election. We'll send it over.

THE PRESIDENT: I'm surprised. Maybe I did. It's amazing what happens when you're tired. Anyway, your question was? I'm sorry for interrupting.

Moral: If you believe that Social Security is worth defending, don't give up on the "P-word." Use it--again and again--to describe the Bush Administration's Social Security so-called "reform" plan. Social Security is a public good. Don't let it become a private boondoggle. Attaching the "P-word" to Bush's plan at every opportunity reminds us what's right about Social Security and wrong about the Right.

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