“Not all men” has now become the kind of internet phenomenon that generates exegetical click-bait at news sites for the unhip cognoscenti. The underlying truth-conditional quibble is something that has been known in the natural-language semantics literature for decades: the generic force that often attends the use of English bare plural noun phrases is not semantically equivalent to universal quantification. “Lions have manes” (not *all* lions!); “Humans give live birth” (not *all* humans!); etc. Men who object to generic assertions on the basis of their non-universality are seriously missing the point (not *all*—er, yes, all of them).

For more, check out this concise overview of generics by Jeff Pelletier, or go and read Greg Carlson’s dissertation, or get yourself a copy of The Generic Book.

Perhaps you’ve heard about SB 318, a new bill in the Wisconsin legislature that aims to force the sale of “underutilized” buildings owned by Milwaukee Public Schools and the City of Milwaukee. You can read the bill here: SB 318 text

The bill is sponsored by a number of a Republican senators and cosponsored by an even greater number of Republican representatives. These are all legislators who claim to believe in limited government and local control. So, a few questions for them:

1. How do you square a belief in local control with sponsorship of a bill that strips control away from locally elected leaders? SB 318 establishes a mechanism for forcing the sale of MPS buildings according to criteria set by the state. This is a clear intrusion by Madison into the affairs of a local city and school board. Beyond being bad policy, it’s a terrible precedent to set and a betrayal of what are supposed to be core Republican values.

2. If this is such a great idea, why limit it to Milwaukee? If there’s some deep and abiding taxpayer interest in selling a certain class of public buildings to private parties, why not require every municipality and school board in Wisconsin do to the same?

It’s clear that this bill is a giveaway to private and charter school operators who have their sights set on certain unused MPS buildings. The goal is to force the sale of a few particular properties. As written, however, it would also force the sale of several other MPS buildings that meet the very broad “eligibility” criteria the bill establishes (including being “underutilized” for as little as a year), buildings that MPS is using for the expansion of some of its flagship schools, including Golda Meir. The bill is thus not only bad government—you don’t pass a law to force a particular market transaction—but it’s so badly written that it has much broader destructive consequences for the district, even if unintended.

If you live in Wisconsin, please call your state legislators and tell them to oppose SB 318.

Today brings a reminder of the dangers of talking about income tax rates as if they applied to people rather than to portions of income (a subject we’ve covered before). Here is Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defending a proposal to cut rates in all five of Wisconsin’s income tax brackets, rather than only in the lowest three brackets:

The tax cuts for high earners are a concern for some Senate Republicans, Fitzgerald said. But Vos said he had no problem with them.

“I think everybody who pays income taxes deserves a tax cut,” he said.

Of course, cutting rates in the lowest three brackets does provide a tax cut for everyone who pays income taxes: high earners enjoy the same rate cut on the portions of their income that fall in the affected brackets. Vos’s statement—variations of which have become a core conservative talking point on tax policy—is carefully crafted to imply (but not entail) that this isn’t the case, and that high earners will be left out unless the top two brackets also see rate cuts. This move is facilitated by talking about tax rates as if they applied directly to people: by this fuzzy logic, no rate cut for the top two brackets means no rate cut for people in the top two brackets, and we are on the slippery slope to “class warfare”.

This kind of misleading talk about taxes is so ingrained that journalists apparently never think to challenge it. Vos’s statement closes a section in the AP article quoted above. Even the self-styled truth-tellers at Politifact indirectly quote, without comment, Wisconsin State Rep. Dale Kooyenga making the same disingenuous point in an investigation of his claims about the state’s tax code.

Politicians of both parties frequently claim to want to “fix” the tax code. A good first step would be to fix the way we talk about it.

A suggestion for how to talk about the NRA’s current leadership, in light of the organization’s cynical and unrepentantly gundamentalist press conference this morning: as a failed partner for peace.

The term partner for peace highlights the NRA’s standing as an organization apart from the public and from the government bodies that might enact meaningful gun reform: you don’t need a partnership with those who are already in your group. It frames the failed partner as untrustworthy but possibly improvable, as needing to undergo a significant internal change in order to become a reliable partner; failure to change can then be taken as a sign of bad faith, hostility, or unsalvageable corruption. It is no accident that governments use phrases like this as euphemistic terms of abuse for those they deem to be terrorists but whom they must work with politically. Finally, partner for peace places the focus on peace, which connotes an absence of weaponry, rather than on safety or security, which are intimately tied to the rhetoric of unfettered gun ownership.

It is clear today that the NRA, under its current leadership, is unwilling to be a partner for peace. It’s time for those who seek meaningful gun reform to say as much.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, much has been written about the vexed linguistic opposition between gun rights and gun control in which our national discussion about guns is predominantly framed. The phrase gun rights, which has (apparently) become increasingly common in the past few decades, brilliantly preempts criticism of gundamentalism, framing any firearms restrictions whatsoever as an affront to liberty. Gun control, meanwhile, is rife with negative connotations and is especially self-undermining in light of the rhetorical ascendancy of gun rights: rights are things to be defended, not controlled. That the matter is almost universally framed in the media as one of gun rights vs. gun control is, as usual, a gross oversimplification, and a deeply misleading one in its implication that one cannot simultaneously support both gun rights and gun control. More to the point, this framing is a losing proposition for those who seek meaningful restrictions on gun ownership in America (restrictions that the Supreme Court’s Heller majority explicitly leaves room for in its original, if not originalist, interpretation of the Second Amendment).

So, a suggestion: let’s talk about gun reform. Reform has none of the bad connotations of control: on the contrary, reform is what Serious People nowadays propose in response to all sorts of pressing and difficult problems (see: school reform, entitlement reform, etc.). Unlike with control, the understood object of reform is not guns themselves, but the way in which our society deals with them. Reform frames its outcome not merely as a change from what came before, but as an undeniable improvement. Gun reform thus not only avoids taking the bait of gun rights, but redirects attention away from the false dichotomy of gun rights vs. gun control.

At present, however, gun reform is all but absent from the national discussion. Google searches today return 5,060,000 hits for “gun rights”, 13,800,000 for “gun control”, and just 286,000 for “gun reform”. There is thus a clear opening for those who support restrictions on gun ownership to claim the phrase gun reform as their own, and thereby to disentangle themselves from the unfavorable linguistic framing of the current debate.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.