Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

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“Even less of a commitment”

Today we caught a remarkably (and perhaps unintentionally) clear glimpse of Scott Fitzgerald’s true feelings about UW System funding, courtesy of one little adverb. If you had suspected that Senate Republicans were disinclined to restore any of the proposed $300 million cut, regardless of the size of spring tax receipts, Fitzgerald today removed all doubt.

By way of background: Fitzgerald is the Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader. His office makes him one of the most important people shaping the state’s 2015-17 budget, alongside Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, Governor Scott Walker, and the 16 members of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. As JFC wraps up its work and we head into the late stages of the budget negotiations, there appears to be a minor conflict brewing between Assembly Republicans, who want to reduce (however slightly) the amount of Walker’s proposed cut to UW, and Senate Republicans, who don’t.

Yesterday brought the news that revenue from spring tax receipts (to be announced May 4) is unlikely to be as large as many had hoped. With the Republicans who control the Legislature in ideological lockstep against any tax increases, or any restoration of their many recent tax cuts, spring tax receipts represent the only politically possible source of new revenue that might be used to offset the cuts proposed by Walker throughout the budget.

There seems to be a consensus among those making the decisions that public K-12—faced with a proposed $127 million drop in funding as it stands—is first in line for any new money coming in. UW System leaders have been lobbying hard to get near the front of the line; at his March 25 appearance at UWM, System President Ray Cross reported proudly that UW was tied for first with K-12.

In the meantime, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank proposed, and the Board of Regents at its April meeting approved, major increases in tuition for out-of-state undergraduates and for graduate and professional students. With that as background, here is what Fitzgerald had to say today about where the UW System stands in the pecking order and to what extent the proposed $300 million cut might be reduced: “I think with the out-of-state and the graduate student tuition increases that the Regents implemented there probably seems to be even less of a commitment to backfill that.”

The phrase “even less of a commitment” carries what Jessica Rett, a semanticist at UCLA, calls an “evaluative” interpretation (treated in detail in her recent book). Ordinary unadorned uses of gradable adjectives (which linguists call positives) are evaluative: John is tall means that John exceeds some relevant standard of tallness. Simple comparatives are not evaluative: John is taller than Bill can be true even if neither John nor Bill is tall. Positive-antonym equatives are not evaluative (John is as tall as Bill; fine if neither is tall), but negative-antonym equatives are (John is as short as Bill; only true if they’re both short).

Fitzgerald’s phrase contains a comparative, which, under ordinary circumstances, is not evaluative. Had he simply said there probably seems to be less of a commitment, that would have been consistent with there being a relatively high level of commitment that has now come down a bit. But the inclusion of even gives away the game: modified by even, this comparative becomes unambiguously evaluative. When Fitzgerald said there seems to be even less of a commitment, he (perhaps unwittingly) revealed the fact that the commitment level was already low, and is now lower still. Whether or not he intended to do it in quite this way, Fitzgerald made it absolutely clear that he has no intention of restoring any funding to the UW System, indeed that he’s never had any intention of doing so.

What Blank and the Regents have provided is a remarkably convenient excuse. Madison is the only UW campus for which raising out-of-state and graduate/professional tuition represents anything like a viable path out of the current cuts. By going ahead with that plan now, before the budget has been passed, they have given lawmakers a gift-wrapped argument for implementing all of Walker’s proposed cuts, and have managed to throw the rest of the System under the bus in the process.

Things are, if possible, even worse than before.

Comparative ellipsis: more misleading

In today’s Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Guy Boulton writes:

People who are young, healthy and have good jobs that don’t provide health benefits will pay more for health insurance under federal health care reform.

People who are older, or have health problems, will pay less. So will those who work in low-paying jobs and buy insurance on their own.

At the same time, the number of people without health insurance in Wisconsin would drop by 340,000 by 2016.

Let’s set aside Boulton’s needless and debatable inclusion of the adjective good as a modifier of jobs that carry no health care benefits, as well as his decision to employ a double negative (without and drop) in order to convey a net gain of 340,000 insured Wisconsinites. What is particularly interesting—and misleading—about Boulton’s prose is the way in which it establishes a contrast between two comparative noun phrases whose than clauses have been elided.

The basic function of a than clause is to make a standard of comparison linguistically explicit. If you say I pay more than Bob does, the clause than Bob does provides the standard of comparison (namely, the amount that Bob pays) for the comparative term more, which in turn tells you that the amount you (the subject) pay is higher than that standard. When no standard of comparison is overtly indicated in the sentence, we are free to recover one from context.

In Boulton’s first paragraph, the subject matter of the article and the prepositional phrase under federal health care reform lead the reader to infer that the standard of comparison associated with pay more for health insurance should be something like than they pay now, prior to health care reform. That is, despite the absence of an overt than clause to provide full clarity, we can safely assume that the intended comparison is between what the young and healthy will pay post-reform and what they pay pre-reform.

In the second paragraph, things get murkier. The grammatical parallelism between the first two paragraphs might be taken to indicate that the standard of comparison here is just like the one above, but with the subjects changed accordingly (in linguistic terms, a case of sloppy identity under ellipsis): i.e., the standard would be the amount that those who are older or have health problems pay prior to health care reform. On the other hand, the first paragraph has now provided us with another salient possible antecedent for the standard of comparison: the amount that the young and healthy will pay after the implementation of health care reform. On this second reading of the sentence, the comparison is between what the old and unhealthy will pay post-reform and what the young and healthy will pay post-reform. In the absence of a than clause to point the way, the reader is free to choose either interpretive path.

The second reading makes the controversial, and untrue, claim that the old and unhealthy will in general pay less for health care than the young and healthy under health care reform. The report referenced (but not linked to) in Boulton’s article is freely available online; see in particular tables 16 and 17 on p. 27, which show that, according to the authors’ projections, even those “winners” in health care reform age 50 and over will still pay more than “losers” in their 20’s, that “winners” age 60 and over will pay more than “losers” in their 20’s or 30’s, and so on, to say nothing of the fact that there are “winners” and “losers” in all age brackets. A quick perusal of the Journal-Sentinel‘s comments section (not recommended under any circumstances) reveals that this second reading of the comparative in Boulton’s second paragraph, though false, is readily available for many readers, with predictable effect on the tone and ideological bent of discussion.

Perhaps Boulton can be absolved of the sin of journalistic bias in favor of the lesser sin of journalistic laziness: the jaundiced eye he casts on health care reform is only slightly less unblinking than that of the tendentiously named Wisconsin Office of Free Market Health Care (created by Scott Walker in early 2011), the state agency that commissioned the report in question. Indeed, the broad outlines of Boulton’s article largely follow those of the Office’s press release. Though Boulton thankfully eschews the Office’s use of boldface for the details it finds most dreadful, he also drops the scare-quotes that the report’s authors had dutifully included around the terms “winners” and “losers”, in an apparent attempt to mine some deep social meaning from the jargon of academic economists. Whatever its root cause, the rhetorical slipperiness of Boulton’s elided than clauses does his readers a major disservice. We should expect more.