MEGA Cliché 'Mistakes Were Made' Not Good Enough

In her first public statements since it was revealed that the Michigan Economic Growth Authority approved a $9.1 million tax credit deal for a convicted embezzler, Gov. Jennifer Granholm was quoted by the Gongwer Michigan Report as saying, "And obviously, a mistake was made, and it cannot happen again."

The "mistakes were made" evasion has become such a political caricature that it even has its own Wikipedia entry:

"Mistakes were made" is an expression that is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by using the passive voice. The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense, with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. An active voice construction might be along the lines of "I made mistakes" or "John Doe made mistakes." The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word "mistakes" also does not imply intent.

The New York Times has called the phrase a "classic Washington linguistic construct." Political consultant William Schneider suggested that this usage be referred to as the "past exonerative" tense, and commentator William Safire has defined the phrase as "[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it." While perhaps most famous in politics, the phrase has also been used in business, sports, and entertainment.

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The disturbing lack of due diligence revealed by this blunder is no laughing matter, however. Nor is the fact that in recent years, MEGA's parent agency, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., has become aggressively less transparent while demanding ever larger sums to subsidize its operations and programs.

If the governor and the MEDC actually had confidence in both their procedures and the efficacy of their programs, they would be eager to make their favor-granting operations and outcomes an open book. For example, rather than just issuing "future-evasive" press releases boasting of the jobs promised by newly announced tax break and subsidy recipients (the embezzler's firm was "expected to create 1,813 new jobs"), the agency would also post on the Internet regular updates with audited figures on how many jobs each deal actually produced.

This is just one of the transparency reforms the agency should adopt. Until it does, the presumption stands that it has something to hide. Specifically, that the favors it grants are a merely a form of self-serving political development, not economic development, because there's no evidence the program works — but a great deal of evidence that it doesn't.