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In the Battle of the Budget, a Fog of Words

Frank Luntz at Affiliate Summit East 2010. Luntz claimed on Fox that the budget of a country of nearly 300 million people is similar to that of a working-class nuclear family. (Photo: Affiliate Summit)

Last year, socialism lost to austerity in the polls – that is, in Merriam-Webster's Top Ten Words of the Year.

Austerity clearly resonates with many people,” Merriam-Webster's Editor at Large Peter Sokolowski observed, noting that it was the most-searched word of 2010 on their web site. This was no spontaneous grassroots effort for the public to brush up on long-forgotten SAT words to impress mom, but rather, austerity was dragged from its dusty, forgotten linguistic closet and into the limelight by the unrelenting conservative messaging machine (which, incidentally, revived socialism to McCarthy-esque stature). Austerity blanketed the corporate airwaves like a thick, intellectual-sounding fog, cloaking every major public discussion on our serious budget problems in a haze of severe-sounding vagaries, thus shielding pundits and politicians from detailing in any specific way what services or benefits the American public would lose.

The problem with austerity, however, is that it requires a trip to the dictionary. While it makes the speaker sound knowledgeable, it also makes him sound just a little bit elitist – or worse, British. And when one is trying to dismantle the welfare state, it's bad to sound as if you come from a nation with socialized medicine.

Thus, in 2011, the new conservative buzz phrase is far more relatable, far less ostentatious, and much more American-sounding. It is unlikely to ever make Webster's top ten of any year, nor will it send anyone to a dictionary.

Spending cuts.

Now, spending cuts is not a fancy phrase, but it does the job: it is expertly vague without the pretense. Spending cuts is a wonderful euphemism, not unlike enhanced interrogation techniques, which allows its user to promote torture without prompting the listener to actually think of torture. In much the same way, spending cuts allows its user to argue for dismantling education and social services without actually having to see the odious images of children, the elderly or your neighbor gravely harmed in the process. And unlike the clunky word austerity, which requires a conscious effort to use, spending cuts slips into dialogue unnoticed, because it's a part of our everyday life: all of us spend, and all of us, when spending too much, need to look for spending cuts, and to “tighten our belts.”

At least, this is the argument made by Frank Luntz, leading conservative sloganeer and pollster (who linguistically engineered terms such as “death tax,” “climate change” and, his crowning achievement, “the war on terror,” in his focus group laboratory). Luntz claimed on Fox that the budget of a country of nearly 300 million people is similar to that of a working-class nuclear family:

“The increase in discretionary nondefense spending over the past four years is 80 percent. Does any family within the sound of my voice have an 80 percent increase in spending? Well, that's what Washington is doing. So, if a family can't afford an 80 percent increase, surely Washington can't afford it.” [italics added]

Luntz did not invent the idea of the United States as a family. He is drawing on an emotionally resonant way that we already think about the nation. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff points out the association with country and family in his book, “The Political Mind.” In other words, Luntz is appealing to the “normal” way in which we think about government, and in doing so, reducing the vast, difficult complexities and responsibilities of our budget to make it sound as if Washington is simply going out for Starbucks' caramel lattes a little too often this month, and needs to start “tightening its belt” and drinking the Folgers on top of the fridge.

“If families have to tighten their belts, so should Washington. If the American people have to do more with less, so should Washington,” Luntz concludes authoritatively, scientific graphs skittering dramatically on the screen in front of him. This message – to get “tough on spending” – is popular with his “swing voter” focus group, and demonstrates that Americans want its government to spend less.

Luntz's results are unsurprising – not because voters have dramatically shifted their ideological orientation against government services, but because of the way in which Luntz carefully frames the language he uses. Luntz is a master of constructing words and phrases that are nearly impossible to disagree with: Who could be for a death tax? Who could be against a war on terror? In much the same way, who in their right mind could support such a massive increase in frivolous government spending, especially when the average Joe the Plumber can barely scrape together enough for a new plunger?

While the public agrees in the abstract that there should be spending cuts, according to a December 2010 Pew poll, we have far more difficulty agreeing on what specific programs and services we are willing to cut. “The public does not eagerly embrace sacrifice to achieve deficit reduction,” an April 2011 Pew poll found. We, “overwhelmingly reject any specific ideas for reducing the deficit – particularly when it comes to changes in entitlement programs,” and 70 percent of us are against cutting federal funding to states for education and roads.

In short, we are for spending cuts, but don't want to give up any services for these cuts.

And thus, like austerity and enhanced interrogation techniques, spending cuts is a dangerous euphemism, much like George Orwell describes in his essay, “Politics in the English Language”: the misleading phrase obscures the real human and social costs of the deficit hawks' proposals, which are keen on gutting the welfare state and cutting services that support American families who don't have a belt to tighten. In reality, when we talk spending cuts, we aren't talking about extra lattes, about frivolous spending, as the term implies. Rather, these spending cuts are coming directly from important social services people need.

Thus, as we engage in the Battle of the Budget, it is more apt that we discard spending cuts for a more accurate phrase: service cuts.

In California, where we are grappling with a debilitating budget crisis, service cuts may shut out 400,000 students from our community college system (which I teach in) – though recent positive budget news suggests we won't have this “doomsday scenario,” thankfully. This semester, I turned away ten to 20 students from each of my classes because there were no seats for them, and sat on the committees that had to cut more courses, so that more students would stand outside my courses without a seat. We lost 135 courses this summer, a 25 percent cut in offerings that leaves students scrambling for courses in the fall, when course offerings will also be reduced. The cuts leave more students shut out of job training and transfer opportunities. And these service cuts extend far beyond the community college system to our public parks, our infrastructure and safety nets for the poor, all of which will be able to serve fewer people.

We should learn from the recent mea culpa of the New York Times editor Arthur Brisbane: the Times discovered a little too late that their linguistic sidestepping of the word torture made them complicit with the administration's pro-torture position. By using euphemism, by not calling torture torture, the Times made it far easier for the Bush administration to persuade the public to applaud methods they would otherwise abhor.

As we fight to minimize the damages of these inevitable service cuts, let's not make the same mistake.

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