BOB GARFIELD: Out-of-control federal spending was the theme relentlessly hammered by GOP candidates leading up to the midterm elections. Tea Partiers in particular raged about bailouts, earmarks and general government profligacy, and the message resonated. But then, as if on cue, this week the chairman of the President’s Bipartisan Panel on Deficit Reduction issued a draft proposal that made it all too clear that discretionary spending, where all the anger was focused, is not where the trouble lies. The real cuts must center on military and entitlements - Social Security, Medicare and so on - which few politicians ever will have the will to cut. To University of California linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, the indignation so ubiquitous in sound bites is and always will be incompatible with the real problem.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: You have this wonderful rhetoric of waste, fraud and abuse, or waste, fraud and inefficiency, or waste, fraud and dishonest – and it’s had all these forms since the 19th century, which suggests that you really can just cut the fat, as people like to say.
BOB GARFIELD: They're talking about cutting the fat. Meantime there’s a giant carcass called entitlement programs in a meat locker that until now nobody’s talked about trimming at all. As a linguist, how would you focus attention on that carcass?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, I don't think there’s any way to make that palatable or to sell that symbolically to people. When you say to someone, you’re going to have to work another three years before you take Social Security, or you’re going to lose your mortgage deduction, nobody’s going to be able to accept that and there’s no buzz phrase that’s going to make it more palatable to the voter.
BOB GARFIELD: But, at the same time, Alan Simpson, the Republican co-chair, found a metaphor. He talked about the difference between minnows – and I guess he means waste, fraud and corruption – as opposed to the whales that are the, the fat part of the budget. What about whales? You like whales?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, whale - whales is great. But if you say to people that waste, fraud and corruption are minnows, it’s going to sound as if you’re slighting them or making them less important than they are, and people will come back with all these horror stories. And it doesn't matter if it only involves 31,000 dollars from a project in Kansas or 212,000 dollars that went to what looks like a silly research project. The horror and the delight that people take in recounting these is the same as if you’re talking about three billion dollars.
BOB GARFIELD: William Proxmire, a Democrat, made a career out of identifying what at first glance looked like silly, wasteful domestic programs because people were so quick to get angry about them. So why is it so hard to imagine a politician making political hay – and I'm going to mix some metaphors here in front of a linguist, and I apologize for that – make hay [LAUGHS] targeting whales and not minnows?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: I don't think very many politicians who are serving now and, and who want to be reelected are going to see any incent or any interest in telling people your Social Security checks are going to be cut, your medical benefits are going to be cut. It’s not going to happen. What has happened that’s interesting is that retired politicians and people who are, so to speak, out of it can say these things. And that may help. But politicians who do vote for these things, whether they're on the left or the right, depending on the cuts involved, are going to find themselves attacked for it the next time they run for office.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, I saw in an Ezra Klein blog post in The Washington Post, he referred to what is in effect an itemized tax bill for a hypothetical taxpayer paying 5400 dollars in federal income tax and FICA combined. And it breaks it down so that you can see you pay 1,040 dollars in Social Security, 625 in Medicare, 385 in Medicaid. Military is about 1,000 bucks. And then you get down to things like Amtrak, two dollars and 23 [LAUGHS] cents.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Foreign aid is, you know, 20 dollars, or something like that, funding for the arts, 24 cents. It does a nice job of putting things in perspective. What do you think about the itemized bill thing? Should politicians be sending it to us?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: That might help, but my sense is that if you cast those percentages out as raw numbers, people are still going to be shocked and indignant, because it’s, it’s enjoyable. No matter that an expense of 1,200,000 dollars or 54,000 dollars for this or that boondoggle means very little, almost is trivial against the federal budget. Fifty-four thousand dollars to the average person is a humongous amount of money, and the indignation’s exactly the same as if you were talking about five billion dollars wasted on no-bid contracts for Blackwater.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me see if I understand this right. Are you saying that language has the power to amplify human psychology but not to defeat it?
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: In a way that’s right. Walter Lippmann talked about the need in a democratic society where the facts, as he said, exceed our curiosity, to resort to symbolic activity. Symbols, he said, are things that assemble emotions after they've been detached from ideas. And I think it’s at the level of symbolic activity that these phrases really operate most efficiently. A phrase like “trim the fat” has a symbolic resonance that some more accurate and precise description might not, just because people don't really want to know. As Lippmann said, the facts exceed our curiosity.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Geoff, as always, thank you so much.
GEOFFREY NUNBERG: Well, thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley.
"A Darkness Rises Up"
by Broken Records