"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass”
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”
Our state Legislature is considering even more ways for the people who run government to pick which businesses get free money. These are largely reheated versions of failed programs, dressed up in new language.
The debate over these programs pits decades of history, consistent academic research results and fundamental principles of economics versus the flowery language of “economic development” promises. And just as Orwell warned us, the language is doing an excellent job of obscuring the facts.
To combat this, it’s important to recognize how some carefully chosen words don’t mean what they should:
- Government “economic development” schemes aren’t held accountable for developing the economy. That’s because they can’t; the resources in play are overwhelmed by every other economic factor in the real world. In a state of 10 million people with a $468 billion GDP, Michigan’s programs in this space are roughly 1/1000th of the economy and their impact on it is proportionally insignificant.
- “Refundable tax credits” can dwarf a company’s actual tax bill, meaning the company cashes a large check from the state. It’s a way of disguising a cash handout through the tax code, since the money never shows up as an appropriations line item.
- The “Michigan Economic Growth Authority” had no authority over economic growth in Michigan. Instead, it awarded refundable tax credits (see above) to select businesses. Even though the MEGA program is gone, it will still cost taxpayers $660 million this year, and it continues to hurt the economy.
- The “Michigan Economic Development Corporation” doesn’t have the ability to develop the state’s economy and isn’t an actual corporation. It’s run largely by advocates for big government and big business and makes its decisions accordingly.
- The “Michigan Strategic Fund” was created in 1984 in response to a recession that had already been over for two years. In more than 30 years since, it has failed to identify a strategy that can deliver a return on the resources it expends. Rather, its governing board rubber-stamps whatever deals are brought before it, without any analytic rigor.
- The legislation called “Good Jobs for Michigan” isn’t about creating jobs. Rather, it makes tax money flow to some companies, rather than from them. The state’s own Auditor General found that only one out of every five promised jobs is ever created through these kinds of deals.
- “Transformational brownfield redevelopment” means building something new where something else used to be. In other words, it’s what humans have done since we invented cities, and for millennia people did it without getting free money from the government to do so.
We have a term for these sorts of terms – doublespeak – thanks to Orwell’s “1984.” But before he introduced us to the power of “doublethink” and “Newspeak” in that novel, he published his essay “Politics and the English Language” that still reads true today. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” he wrote. “When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.”
The way to fight this, he said, is to recognize and avoid the temptation to act like Humpty Dumpty and make our own words mean what we choose them to mean. “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful … and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” Orwell concluded. “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits.”
For those who oppose efforts by would-be central planners to interfere in the market and pick winners and losers through the political process, remember Orwell’s warning: “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”
We do know better. But until we regain control of the language being used, simply being right isn’t going to be enough.
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