On this week of his 100th day, the president didn't want to wake up to a government shutdown, so he shelved the border wall, temporarily, he says. He also released a one-page tax plan with big cuts, which the media covered with the usual homespun language about balancing checkbooks and such.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: One side wants to spend a lot and the other side wants to cut taxes but nobody seems to want to balance the budget.
SENATOR ORRIN HATCH: Good intentions will not balance the nation’s checkbook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pundits and politicians worried about going into the red.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Today, the Trump administration unveils a broad outline on how it wants to rework America’s tax code.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Without a plan to pay for it, that’s going to explode the debt.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This kind of cut of this size is going to have a real impact on government or we are going to have this impossible deficit problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The mainstream media usually frame the federal budget as a household budget writ large. That overarching metaphor, says cognitive linguist George Lakoff, is precisely wrong.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, the first problem is that the household can't just print money, whereas the government can. Secondly, the government can sell bonds, the household can’t [LAUGHS] -
- and pass taxes. And then the question is, who is the government in debt to? And the answer is ourselves, [LAUGHS] the American people and people who buy the bonds. If you're in a family, you can’t just say, oh, let’s sell bonds to each other.
[LAUGHING] That doesn't work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another thing it does, I think, is it ignores what the role of government money, as opposed to money in a family budget, is supposed to do?
GEORGE LAKOFF: This is a very big deal. Abraham Lincoln said that this is a government of, by and for the people. “For the people” says that the government and the public have to care about each other, and that affects how you spend the money.
Whenever the Republicans say, we need a balanced budget, what that says is it’s going to cost poor people. It means we cannot do anything to alleviate poverty, to alleviate poor schooling, to take people out of college loan debt. We can’t do anything to improve communities or improve infrastructure in various places so that people will have more jobs and better jobs. What it says is, we have to use money on what we’re using it now; you can't invest it in the future. In order to do that, you have to borrow money, that is, go into debt, but you're borrowing it from Americans. You’re borrowing it from yourselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how does understanding the government budget as a macro personal budget influence the way we talk about government spending, how that issue’s framed?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Well, it’s framed as we have to balance the budget at all times. If we go into debt, it's terrible. And look at the size of our debt. The debt is huge!
Now, what economists know perfectly well is that debt really has to be measured versus the size of the economy. And the way to understand this is really simple. Suppose you're running a restaurant and you'll have a certain small amount of debt that you borrowed for this restaurant and a certain small amount of profit and you try to pay it off, fine. Now, suppose you had a company with a thousand restaurants, what happens? Their debt looks huge, but they’re also getting profits from a thousand restaurants. [LAUGHS] The real issue is how much is this relative to your profit?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are a couple of other words that we've heard a lot in the news this week pertaining to the Trump administration's announcement Wednesday outlining its proposal for tax cuts. It’s framed both in liberal and conservative media as tax reform or overhaul.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The president's broad brush plan for tax reform, they called it historic and the biggest ever.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump today taking the lead on tax reform, proposing a massive overhaul.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But is it really that?
GEORGE LAKOFF: Not at all. The word “reform” assumes that there's something bad that needs to be made better and the reform would make it better. What George Bush did when he first came into office, he talked about tax relief.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: And starting in 2001, we delivered the largest tax relief since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
[SOUND OF CLAPPING/END CLIP]
“Relief” says there’s something wrong going on here, people need relief from taxes and if you want higher taxes on anybody then you’re a bad guy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what kind of word would you substitute for, say, “reform”?
GEORGE LAKOFF: We don’t have a simple word for it. The way to say it is it makes billionaires richer and everybody else poorer.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Would you just say, a tax plan, something neutral?
GEORGE LAKOFF: No.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] It would be very difficult for the mainstream media to say, President Trump’s tax disaster is now on the docket for consideration by the Congress. That would be a difficult thing to say.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Why?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because it is telling the public how to judge it and not giving it necessarily the information it needs to come to its own conclusion.
GEORGE LAKOFF: It’s not just the facts and figures. You have to tell them what does it mean, who it helps and who it hurts. Brooke, when I turn on the TV they may give the facts and figures but they still say “tax reform.” “Tax” has to do with the word “taxing.” It’s bad for you, it’s a burden. If they called it “investment in the society,” that would be a very different thing. If you say, “let’s stop investing in our economy, let’s stop investing in our people,” people say, what do you mean because taxes, when they're done well, are investments, investments in education, investments in health, investments in lifting people out of poverty, all sorts of things. This is hidden by the language and it’s hidden by the way that the language is reported in the press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Investment” instead of “taxes” - what you’re suggesting is a whole different lexicon.
GEORGE LAKOFF: It’s not just a lexicon. It’s a lexicon that has a different meaning and that, therefore, has a different effect on society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once again, thank you so much.
GEORGE LAKOFF: Always a pleasure to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: George Lakoff is a professor emeritus of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: This week, this week I spoke to Art Cullen. He is a reporter and co-owner of Northwest Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly paper with a circulation of 3,330. It has a staff of ten, if you count the recipes editor - and it just won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, taking on three sets of county commissioners and big agriculture, in one fell swoop.
ART CULLEN: Mainly the big interests just ignored us for three years and until the lawsuit was filed, nobody was really paying attention to these issues. They don’t really care what we think. They were [LAUGHS] some little weekly out in the sticks, forget about it. Well, then we won a Pulitzer Price and now they’re feeling a little more heat, maybe.
BOB GARFIELD: To hear my conversation with Al Cullen, go to onthemedia.org and, while you’re there, sign up for our excellent newsletter.