Pauls Valley, OK, Pauls Valley Democrat

July 29, 2011

Political speak on debt crisis requires translation

The problem is that when politicians say them, they don’t mean what you always thought they meant.

Taylor Armerding
CNHI News Service

— I’ve always appreciated translators. On the few occasions I’ve been in foreign countries, I would have been lost without their help.

So, since I can’t pay them back directly and since I have become bilingual in understanding the great divide between political speech and normal speech, I’m offering to show my gratitude to them by translating for you.

And in the frenzy leading up to the Aug. 2 deadline to raise the country’s $14.3 trillion debt, the need for translation is urgent. Those speaking in the political tongue are everywhere.

The problem is not that these are unfamiliar words or phrases. The problem is that when politicians say them, they don’t mean what you always thought they meant.

There is not nearly enough room for all of them, but here are a few examples President Obama uses regularly to get you started:

“This is about asking people who have benefited the most over the last decade to share in the sacrifice, and I think these patriotic Americans are willing to pitch in – if they're asked – because they know that middle-class families shouldn't have to pick up the whole tab for closing the deficit."

The first word that is going to trip you up here is“ask.” In politics, it does not refer to a request that can be accepted or declined like, “Would you go out to dinner with me?” This, if it is enacted, will be an order, carrying the force of law. This is like Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger “asking” a bookie for a cut of his profits.

“Benefited”is one of those slippery terms that implies rather than declares. If you are among the “people” the president is talking about, it doesn’t matter if you have worked and sweated 100 hours a week for decades to gain your financial success. It doesn’t matter how many risks you took or how many jobs you created.

The word implies that you have received something from some benevolent source through no effort of your own, and therefore you don’t really deserve it. See also “tax cuts for the rich” that “cost” the government billions – the clear implication is that government creates all the wealth in the country, and then hands out more of it to the rich than the poor.

“Share in the sacrifice” implies that the rich haven’t been paying the vast majority of income taxes all along, without saying it directly.

The same goes for saying that without tax hikes on the rich, the middle class will have to“pick up the whole tab” to address the deficit. The middle class has never picked up the whole tab, and it wouldn’t under any plan on the table, including those from Republicans. What the president is really saying is, “You should be envious and resentful of those who are more financially successful than you are. And I’m here to help you stick it to them.”

“It would reduce the deficit by around $4 trillion.”

In politicalese, “reduce the deficit” means to keep increasing the deficit, but just a bit more slowly than current projections. It is like you carrying debt of $1 million and claiming that over 10 years you will reduce that debt by $500,000 by making sure it rises only to $1.5 million instead of $2 million.

“… the 98 percent of Americans who make under $250,000 would see no tax increases at all. None. What we’re talking about … is asking … millionaires and billionaires to share in the sacrifice everyone else has to make.”

I have to give the president some credit here. He did some translating of his own. Just moments before “asking” millionaires and billionaires to pay higher taxes, he said that taxes would increase only on those making more than $250,000. (actually, it’s $200,000 for individuals). So, “millionaires” refers to people who are one-quarter or one-fifth millionaires.

It is also worth understanding that everybody will pay more for the goods and services provided by those evil corporate entities that will pay higher taxes. But, since that extra money you’ll be paying is not a tax, you won’t mind, will you?

“How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for? It’s not fair.”

First, remember that “slash funding” doesn’t mean cutting it. It just means slowing the rate of increase.

The meaning of “fair” or “fair share” depends on what income group Obama is taking about. For anybody he considers wealthy, it means “more,” but there is no translation for how much more. If you ask the “tax the rich” advocates what is the maximum percentage of income government should confiscate from the wealthy, they will never answer you.

But for the nearly half of the population that doesn’t pay any income tax at all, “fair share” means they’re still “paying” too much.

There is a lot more, but you get the idea. It would be much more honest if the political class simply created a foreign language for debates like these. When they flip the meaning of familiar words on their heads, it almost seems like they’re trying to deceive us.

They wouldn’t do that, would they?


Taylor Armerding is a freelance columnist. Contact him at