I have had a recurring fascination with words, which may not be that surprising when you recall that I am a frustrated fiction writer. However, my fascination goes beyond the usual writer's fascination with the ways in which words are used, the history of words, the way the use changes, the shifting connotations and so on. I have another, much more political fascination with words, that being the way that certain terms, terms which give every sign of having clear cut and obvious meanings, can often be used to means almost anything at all, with various listeners hearing in them what they want to hear, allowing clever politicians to make a single statement, and yet give different impressions to each listener.
I wrote before1 about some of the most popular of these "hollow words", those being the matched pair of "wants" and "needs", as well as the equally nebulous set of "fair" and "fairness" (as well as the near antonym "exploitation"). However, these are simply the most obvious cases, and those possessed of one special aspect, but there are a host of words which can be used in similar ways.
What makes "wants", "needs", "exploit", "fair" and the like special, is that the words truly have, at least in the contexts in which they are commonly used, no set meaning. There are a huge number of different "weasel words", terms which do have a relatively established meaning, or at least a meaning in most contexts, but which can be made quite protean in definition in the right context. Words such as "freedom", "assistance"2 and the like can often be used in an open-ended way so that each listener assigns his own special connotation to them -- a trick much used by the first Obama campaign3 -- but those I see as somewhat different from the true hollow words, those without any useful meaning in most economic or political contexts, words such as "fair", which are entirely connotation, without any clear definition.
A good example of such meaningless terms would be the macroeconomic distinction sometimes made between "savings" and "investment". Since almost every modern individual saves by putting money into some sort of instrument or account, be it a savings account, checking account, CD, money market account, or what have you, money which is "saved" is actually invested (for the most part) by the institution holding it. And Keynes himself even admitted as much -- well, when it was not inconvenient for his theory, at which time he forgot the stated "identity" of the two -- but like Keynes, many macroeconic theories forget this inconvenient fact, especially when blowing smoke about their supposed money "multipliers" and pretend people save by burying money in a coffee can under the biggest tree in the yard, or stuff it in their mattress.
What makes these empty weasel words so absurd is that, while sometimes decrying "savings", either when they want to boost "consumer spending" or explicit investment, the same economists often suffer a sudden recall of what savings actually entails, and begin to berate the public for "saving too little"4, insisting we same, so the money can be invested.
Then again, this shouldn't be surprising to me, as the words are, when used in macroeconmic senses, true "hollow words", that is words, without any clear meaning, used in infinitely flexible ways, filling in whatever function is needed, providing nothing more than an implicit positive or negative spin to a given statement.
Political talk about economics and the market is full of such words, many with even less explicit meaning than "savings" and "investment", which, though the meaning is very limited, do have some tiny trace of an old, traditional meaning still lingering within them. On the other hand, the previously mentioned terms "want", "need", "fair" and "exploit" all have no lingering meaning at all, all they do is provide a verbal indication of whether or not the listener should approve or disapprove of a given course of action. The same is true of the equally meaningless, but oh so popular, terms, such as "luxury", "rich", "earned income", "unearned income" and the like. Let us look at those for a moment.
The absurd distinction between "unearned" and "earned" income is popular among tax men, mostly because it justifies an exorbitant tax rate on certain types of revenue, but beyond that, and its ability to help rabble rousers fire up a populist frenzy, it has no useful meaning. Literally, anything other than a paycheck is "unearned" income, but no one would think of calling the self-paid income of a stock broker or banker "unearned income" even though it is gained from the same sources as the "unearned income" of a day trader, a retiree who has small stock holdings or a profligate heiress. Somehow, certain types of investment seem to escape the "unearned" stigma, provided they have some sort of job attached. Insurance companies are not filled with those making "unearned income" for example. Yet, rationally, there is no difference.
Of course, the true secret is, "unearned income" is investment money when it is paid to a group we seek to demonize, often anyone richer than our audience, while pensions, retirement plans, even the small investments of the middle class, somehow fail to fall into the category. (Except for the purposes of the tax man, but he has a different agenda when applying these hollow words.) And that is why I describe these as hollow words, as they have no clear meaning, but exist solely to fulfill the needs to the speaker, to create certain emotional responses, whatever they may be. The same is true of the previously mentioned term "luxury", which also exists solely to justify additional taxes5, or to allow populists to decry the extravagance of rich CEOs or those who inherited fortunes, depending on what their current agenda might be.
Perhaps the best examples are those terms used to evoke envy, such as "the rich", or to evoke sympathy such as "the middle class" or "the working poor". Beyond a vague feeling that most of us belong to "the middle class" and that certain people fall into the categories of rich and poor, these terms have absolutely no definition, as many of us found out when the Clinton tax increases told many of us we were unknowingly "rich". Similarly, the "working poor", besides raising warm feelings about Horatio Alger characters struggling to rise above hardship, really means very little. Except for a comparatively small portion who live entirely on government payments -- and a smaller number who live exclusively by crime, yet never rise above poverty -- all poor are "the working poor". I suppose as a distinction from those who live exclusively on welfare (a fairly small group) it may mean something, but as it is used in most contexts, implying some pride, unwillingness to take handouts, and so on, it is truly not a term used for any meaning, but, as with all hollow words, simply inserted to bring an emotional response.
There are many, many more hollow words, and even more weasel words, which have meaning in some contexts, but serve as misleading emotional indicators in others. However, rather than keep rambling on and on, let me wrap this up by pointing out something interesting. In economics, it seems our modern society has a tendency to excoriate those who have wealth, who invest, who produce, and who have more than us. Granted, envy6 has always played a role in politics. But in many past ages, it was seen for what it was, the demagoguery of the rabble rousers. Only in modern times has the rhetoric of the communist agitator, the ward heeler, the union goon and the street corner rabble rouser become the official rhetoric of a major political party. Worse still, not only become the rhetoric of one party, but been accepted by the other to such a degree they essentially concede the point, agreeing to the need to regulate CEO salaries, Wall Street investment, banks and the like7. In short, not only has hatred of the rich and envy of anyone who has more than we do become acceptable, it appears to be the only acceptable political position among mainstream parties8.
1. See "One More Meaningless Word and Its Consequences", "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "Protean Terminology", "Semantic Games", "Can We Ban the Word "Scarce"?", "Confucius, Aedes Aegypti, Pluto, Sub-Species, Conservatives and Republicans", "Misunderstanding Arbitrary Definitions", "A Brief Thought on Poverty", "We Have Won the "War on Poverty"", "The High Cost of Not Wasting Food", "Fiscal Discipline" [regarding "middle class"], "Misleading Terminology", "Be Careful When 'Sticking It' to 'Big Business'" and "Peanut Butter and Disability".
2. Obviously the line here is somewhat vague, and depends to some degree on what the reader sees as connotation and denotation. Still, I would argue words such as "freedom" and "assistance", in a politico-economic context, have far more denotation than, say the supposed distinction between "wants" and "needs" or the term "fair", which cannot be clearly defined at all. Politicians may rely upon differing understandings of "freedom" to hide their true message, or to give different signals to different groups, but "freedom" still has an underlying agreed meaning to all the parties involved, they simply differ on the marginal issues of the definition (though some margins can cover quite a bit of ground). On the other hand "fair", in an economic context, has no agreed meaning, in fact no real meaning at all. And thus I try to draw the line between general "weasel words" and "hollow words"
3. See "The Candidate as Inkblot", "The Obama Hangover", "Best of the Web Imitates Me", "Sorry, Mr. Chapman, No" and "Government by Emotion".
4. See "To Correct Debra Saunders", "Debt", "Living Beyond Their Means", "Excuse Me?", "When Help Hurts", "Environmentalism For The Economy?", "Why"Negative" Economic Indicators Are A Good Thing", "Bad Economics Part 11", "Overly Simplified Economics and Confused Interpretations", "Shoplifting, Redlining and Kleptocrats", "The High Cost of Protection", "Who Will Decide", "Why Borrower Forgiveness is Both Wrong and Dangerous", "Bad Economics Part 5", "Selfishness as Reason - "Wants", "Needs", "Fairness" and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Help and Harm", "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution", "An Examination of the Economics and Sociology of Government Spending", "The Dishonesty of Transportation Spending", "More Thoughts on the FairTax", "Why I Dislike the FairTax", "The FairTax's Liberal Assumptions" and "The Right Way".
5. See "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth", "A Great Quote", "The Other 99%", "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 2, 2012)", "The Price of Equality", "Nonsensical Beliefs", "Perverting Self Interest", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Willful (Economic) Blindness?", "The Foolishness of Corporate Taxes", "Two Thoughts on Taxation" and "The Failings of Sales Taxes".
6. See "Envy And Analogy", "Envy Kills", "Envy Kills II", "Brief Discussion of Envy", "Organ Donation", "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Self-Interest Versus Narcissism", "Evil and Greed", "Greed","Greed Part 2" and "Greed Versus Evil".
7. See "With Good Intentions", "Et Tu, Town Hall?", "When Did We Become Liberals?", "Of Wheat and Doctors", "Selling Yourself Cheap", "Giving Away the Game", "A Little More On CEO Salaries", "Damn the Torpedoes!", "Why Do They Earn So Much For Playing a Game?", "Nonsensical Beliefs", "Government by Emotion", "Those Greedy Bankers", "Perverting Self Interest", "How Conservatives Defeat Themselves", "The Single Greatest Weakness", "What We Deserve", "Who Is To Blame?", "Don't Blame the Politicians", "You Lose When You Think You Win", "Beware Populist Deception", "Tyranny Without Tyrants", "Bad Solutions to Small Problems", "Consumer Protection", "Pyrrhic Victories", "Authoritarian Oil Talk", "Greed and the Price of Oil", "Those Darn Speculators", "Misunderstanding the Market", "Anti-Business Business", "Defending Freedom?", "Why We Lose", "What is Wrong with Us", "The Difficulty of Principle", "Fear of the "Big"", "O Tempora! O Mores!, or, The High Cost of Supposed Freedom", "Self-Serving Cynicism and Our Cultural Immaturity", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age" and "Sleight of Hand".
8. It is interesting, given the use of "working poor" and "unearned income" to emphasize the virtue of hard work, that the only "rich" who don't seem to suffer from criticism are those who provide some sort of entertainment, be it actors or athletes. Those who actually provide jobs for those "working poor", or who manufacture goods which benefit the rest of us are routinely criticized, while those who merely entertain avoid criticism.