I’m a writer. Maybe that’s why I have such a clear understanding of how words can be used to affect the way readers and listeners of words think.
In the economic realm, over a period of decades, I’ve watched as some very important words have come to be used systematically, pervasively, and brilliantly to make certain conclusions that benefit the rich seem undeniable, and thence go on to generate policies favorable to the rich and inimical to everyone else.
Take the word “growth,” for example. Economic growth is good, right? Policies that foster growth are the right policies for a government to promote, right? Well, not necessarily.
If all or virtually all the added wealth generated by this growth goes to the very top, the already rich who get richer because of it, and little if any trickles down to everyone else, what’s so good about this kind of growth? And why do everything possible to promote it, if doing so actually works against the interests of all but a few — as indeed has been the case with the growth in the American economy in recent decades.
Economic growth that isn’t fairly and appropriately apportioned isn’t a good thing. So why treat reports of “growth” in an economy as a sign of progress, without clearly specifying where its benefits are going? People who dig down into economic reports know what’s happening here. But reportage about “growth” generally is just a one-word outline picture that’s rarely fills in the details. This omission isn’t accidental either. Not just media laziness. It’s the end product of deliberate pro-rich word manipulation.
Then there’s words like “employment” and “unemployment.” More jobs are good, right? A lower unemployment rate means that the real world economy in which most people live is getting better, right? Well, not necessarily.
Again, people who burrow down into official numbers see the flaws of such thinking. Though millions of new jobs have indeed been created since the 2008 market crash, the percentage of Americans actually working is at the lowest level since 1979. Jobs, in other words, are being created slower than population increase. As to the quality of the new jobs being created, most are in low wage categories such as retail and hospitality, jobs that also offer few benefits, going nowhere jobs that leave people on the cusp of poverty.
Many of these jobs are also part-time, or second and even third jobs for individuals, which works to skew the unemployment numbers. People who drop out of the workforce are not even counted as unemployed. A growing number of these dropouts do so to collect disability from the government because the pay is better than they could get at a box store.
The bare employment and unemployment numbers used to tell Americans how the economy is doing, and which act in important ways to set government policies, are thus both skewed and highly deceptive — and they permit generating policies that don’t upset a pro-rich agenda.
And then there’s the “reform” word. Labor markets have been “reformed” like crazy in recent decades. Labor union power “reformed” drastically downward. “Reform” of Wall Street and the rich-friendly tax code meanwhile has been middling bordering on the piddling.
The tyrants in Orwell’s 1984 used Newspeak to trim the size of language down to a point where even conceiving of less tyrannical government became impossible. The Ayn Randian word manipulators use a more subtle means of word control, giving words that can’t be avoided in economic debates meanings that always seem to serve their own purposes.
Today’s commonly used economic words tell a pleasant tale of economic recovery. The economy is growing. Employment and unemployment numbers are improving. Washington’s reform agenda is progressing nicely.
Every day in every way things are getting better and better. Except not really.
(Michael Silverstein’s new comic novel, Murder At Bernstein’s, about a financial news billionaire who wants to get elected Mayor of Philadelphia, is now available on Amazon. Silverstein is a former senior editor with Bloomberg News, and National Public Radio’s Wall Street poet.)