Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


Scaling up

In a recent series of articles, Christine MacDonald of the Detroit News has reported on the distressed finances of the Detroit Public Library system, taking a dim view of spending on salaries and perks for senior staff, contracts issued to relatives of administrators, failed fundraising campaigns, large raises for union workers, catering, business cards, and other items at a time when library leaders are contemplating extensive layoffs and branch closures in order to erase a budget deficit of approximately $11 million. Special scorn, however, has been reserved for the recently completed renovation of a wing of the library’s main branch: MacDonald has repeatedly indulged in a morbidly gleeful inventorying of the wing’s furniture, including 20 new chairs and eight new trash cans that cost about $1,100 apiece.

MacDonald’s reporting is fixed squarely within the frame of waste: library leaders, entrusted with public money in a time of economic distress, have spent recklessly on items of little or no value to the public. To be sure, MacDonald’s articles have detailed incidents of nepotism and general financial mismanagement. Viewed in this frame, however, any expenditure at all comes to be seen as a waste. The main branch renovation stands out from the other items MacDonald describes as the only one that can be considered a public asset, something of value to, and accessible to, everyone who comes into contact with the library. As something with a genuine upside, it fits least naturally into the frame of waste.

It is perhaps for this reason that MacDonald expends extra rhetorical energy framing the renovation as a waste of money. Of particular interest is her use of the scalar focus particle even:

Detroit Public Library officials say finances have grown so bad they could close most neighborhood branches, but in a few weeks plan to unveil a revamped wing of a main library that even administrators say spares few expenses.
(Critics: $2.3M Detroit library project a symbol of waste amid budget crisis, Detroit News, Apr. 22, 2011)

The library didn’t buy the 20 chairs from Gingell. But even administrators say the purchase was a mistake.
(Library users deserve $1K chairs, firm rep says, Detroit News, Apr. 26, 2011)

Unions and even some commissioners contend the library wasted money on a $2.3 million renovation of the Main Library’s South Wing that includes 20 European-designed chairs that cost $1,100 apiece, eight stainless steel trash cans that cost $1,110 each and two fireplaces that ran $5,000 a pop.
(Library pays $6,500 for business cards for all, Detroit News, May 5, 2011)

Even associates with focus; in all three cases above, it is prefixed to a focused noun phrase (administrators in the first two examples, some commissioners in the third). While linguists differ on the particulars of the analysis of even, there is general agreement that it invokes a set of alternatives ordered along a scale. Roughly speaking, even says that the proposition expressed is less likely than other relevant alternatives. At the same time, it asserts the truth of this unlikely proposition, leaving us to infer that all of the more likely alternatives are true as well.

To take an example from above, relevant alternatives to the proposition Administrators say the purchase was a mistake might include Library staff say the purchase was a mistake, Library patrons say the purchase was a mistake, City officials say the purchase was a mistake, Local taxpayers say the purchase was a mistake, and so on. The key implication is that administrators are relatively unlikely to view the purchase as a mistake. Perhaps this is because they were the ones who made the purchase; perhaps it is because they are wasteful by nature. Even leaves us to imagine our own reasons for why administrators would be unlikely to look unfavorably upon the purchase; but its use requires that we accept that basic premise and invent a reason, whatever it may be.

With our reason in mind and the unlikelihood premise accepted, we are led to infer that everyone else (and thus we) must believe the purchase to be a mistake, too. Even the administrators admit as much! The logic of scalar inference introduced by even is subtle but powerful. In this case, it serves to mask the fact that, once we step away from MacDonald’s rhetorical frame, the wastefulness of the main branch renovation is not self-evident. Viewed through other frames, such as those of investment or revival, the renovation takes on a different cast altogether. From the financial dysfunction of the Detroit Public Library administration, a truly lovely new public asset has emerged. That’s something that even the Detroit News should be able to appreciate.

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Non-distributive instrumental coordination

From this evening’s Detroit News coverage of Rick Snyder’s tax proposal, which was passed by the Michigan legislature today:

The tax reform is part of Snyder’s plan to close a $1.4 billion budget deficit. He’s doing so by cutting department budgets, eliminating business and personal tax credits, adding a new tax on pensions and cutting business taxes.

Four gerundial clauses—beginning with cutting, eliminating, adding, and (again) cutting—form a coordinated complement to the preposition by. This large by-phrase serves as an instrumental adverbial, indicating the means by which the budget deficit is to be closed. In coordinated instrumentals like this, the instrumental interpretation is typically distributed over all the conjuncts. Each coordinated gerundial clause in the excerpt above should thus name a different contribution to the closing of the deficit; and indeed, the first three all name different means of reducing government expenditures or increasing government revenues. The clear outlier here is the fourth gerundial clause, cutting business taxes: politics aside, it is a brute fact of mathematics that cutting taxes cannot be a proximate contributor to deficit reduction.

What we have in the excerpt above is thus a complex coordinated instrumental by-phrase whose instrumental semantics is not distributed over all the conjuncts. Rather, the instrumental semantics can only be understood to apply to the entire phrase; the sentence will end up true if and only if the deficit reducers in the first three conjuncts collectively outweigh the deficit aggravator in the fourth. To paraphrase: ‘Snyder is doing the following four things, which are collectively meant to close a $1.4 billion budget deficit.’

In practice, there is a strong semantic garden-path effect here. The instinct to interpret the instrumental meaning distributively over all conjuncts is deeply ingrained; we retreat to the non-distributive interpretation only after stumbling over the final conjunct. Less charitably, we might admonish the News for engaging in rhetorical sleight-of-hand, inviting its readers to infer that cutting business taxes has a near-term budgetary effect akin to that of, e.g., instituting a tax on pensions. The grammatical parallelism further serves to mask a yawning affective gap between the first three conjuncts’ impact on the immediately affected parties and the fourth conjunct’s impact on businesses; the disparity between the two instances of cutting serves this same purpose. Long coordinated phrases can be hard to keep track of, and correspondingly easy to slip things into.


Nothing but the truth

Political speech is an exercise in framing. Though the world is full of facts, language affords us nearly limitless flexibility in describing a given state of affairs: we can say that a house is located “in Abbottabad” or “within a mile of the Pakistani military academy”; that Detroit is “the most populous city in Michigan” or “roughly one-third of its size in 1950”; and so on. While facts themselves are independent of language and thus politically inert, our capacity to state them is not.

Which brings me to PolitiFact Wisconsin, home of the Truth-O-Meter. PolitiFact investigates the truthfulness of claims made by political figures, providing what is in principle a useful public service. An unwavering focus on a claim’s truth, however, often distracts our attention from—and thereby unwittingly, through repetition, reinforces—its point of view, that is, the rhetorical frame it seeks to impose on the facts in question. So it is with PolitiFact’s latest investigation, of Scott Walker’s claim that Milwaukee County spent over $170,000 in 2010 on union-related work done by county employees.

As detailed in PolitiFact’s report, Walker’s claim is true; in fact, it slightly understates the amount spent (and significantly understates it when associated benefits are taken into account, bringing the total to around $260,000). PolitiFact sees its role as “not weighing in on the merits of the practice,” but rather “checking the accuracy of Walker’s claim on the cost to Milwaukee County.” By adopting Walker’s framing of the facts, however, PolitiFact inevitably echoes his negative assessment of the practice.

Framing is especially important in talking about money: the underlying mathematics allows for an infinite variety of truth-conditionally equivalent statements of a given financial fact. To wit, the amount in question is equal to roughly $4,375, on average, for each of the roughly 60 county employees PolitiFact reports were paid for union work in 2010; it is equal to $48.12 per county employee in 2010 (based on the county’s report of 5,457 full-time employee equivalents in 2010); and it is a bit under two one-hundredths of one percent of the county’s total expenditures in 2010, which were approximately $1.46 billion, according to the same report. All of the statements above are equally true. Stating the amount as a per-employee average or as a percentage of the county budget is intended to make the expenditure look small. Stating the amount as a lump sum, as Walker and PolitiFact do, is intended to make it look large; among other things, this invites the politically contentious inference that the county’s overriding priority should be to spend as little money as possible. While the total amount spent is a politically neutral matter of fact, stating it as such is a rhetorical choice that reflects a particular political point of view, PolitiFact’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Indeed, there is a steady undercurrent of anti-union sentiment in the PolitiFact report. Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators are described as having decided to “hotfoot it to Illinois” in February. The report asks whether county employees were paid “not to do work for the county, but for their unions,” a construction that presumes, without argument, an antagonism between the interests of the county and those of its collectively represented employees. While comparisons with city and state practice are made in an attempt to provide some context for the discussion of the county figures, no comparison is made with the cost structure of public contracts issued to private entities, where public payments are used, directly or indirectly, to fund administrative, advertising, and other costs not associated with work done for the public (to say nothing of the amount the private entity collects as profit).

By focusing entirely on the truth of Walker’s claim and ignoring its framing of the facts, PolitiFact tacitly endorses Walker’s point of view. While PolitiFact’s mission is admirable, its execution leaves much to be desired. Like PolitiFact, my intention here is not to assess the wisdom of paying county employees for time spent on union activities. Rather, I hope to have shown that PolitiFact grossly overestimates its ability to stay above the political fray while talking about such matters. Lost in the cheerful green glow of the Truth-O-Meter is the fact that the truth always comes in a specifically chosen and politically interested linguistic package.


Tense and aspect not enjoined

From today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel coverage of proposed budget cuts to the Milwaukee Public School system:

The district also doesn’t benefit from savings provided in Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-repair bill, which curtailed collective bargaining and imposed cost-sharing with public employees for health insurance and pension benefits. MPS already had ratified a contract with its teachers union through 2013 that doesn’t include the same level of concessions.

As is well known, due to a restraining order, the law in question has not been enacted. The use of the passive participle provided in the excerpt above, however, strongly suggests otherwise. Alongside the present tense expressed by doesn’t benefit and the past tense expressed by curtailed and imposed in the following sentence, the language above presupposes that the law is in force and that school districts and other public institutions can now make use of its provisions, contrary to fact. A liberal sprinkling of hypothetical/modal woulds in the first sentence above would bring the text into closer alignment with reality.

For details on the deeply euphemistic sense of cost-sharing intended above, see here.


Chromatic relativity and contrastive focus

From today’s New York Times coverage of the Canadian election:

“The key to understanding Stephen Harper is his determination to establish the Conservative Party as the dominant party in Canada,” said Michael Bliss, a historian. “He wants to gradually shift the shade of government from red to blue.” In Canada, the Conservatives are blue.

What is striking about the final sentence in the excerpt above—apart from its oddly terse, field-guide–like tone—is its economical handling of the implicit contrast with American political color terminology. An American audience needs the final sentence above not just because it knows nothing of Canadian political color associations, but because those associations are exactly the opposite of what they are in the US. The swift cultural entrenchment of red–blue color-coding in American politics that has taken place since the 2000 presidential election (and the associated brief reign of Tim Russert’s whiteboard) makes Michael Bliss’s final comment above seem like a misstatement or a typo before we arrive at the final explanatory sentence.

It is no accident, then, that the final sentence begins with the prepositional phrase In Canada. This immediately establishes a contrast with the reader’s location and paves the way for the contrastive focus to come. Consider, for comparison, the following reformulation: The Canadian Conservative Party’s official color is blue. This gets the facts right, but does not invite the contrast with American political color terminology that the original does. In the reformulation, a crucial part of the explanation is missing; as a result, the sentence is far more awkward.

The contrastive focus itself, with its associated prosodic emphasis, falls most naturally on the adjective, blue. That is, the implicit contrast seems to be with a sentence like In America, the conservatives are red (this despite the fact that “the conservatives” is not the name of any American political party). But the focus could instead fall on the subject, the Conservatives; the implicit contrast then would be with the sentence In America, the Democrats are blue. Even if the first option is the preferred one, the availability of the second indicates that there are two questions under discussion: “What color are the Conservatives?” and “Who is blue?” The first arises from the mention of politically associated colors in the midst of a discussion of the Canadian Conservative Party. The second arises from the implicit contrast with American political colors, where blue has an altogether different association. The subtleties of linguistic information packaging are on full display in that odd short sentence.