Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher


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.


Job creators (or, derivational morphology and its discontents)

One notable linguistic consequence of this summer’s economic debate has been the rise of the term job creators, which has become a fixture of conservative talking points on the economy. While there is no shortage of reasons to be skeptical of the term itself—its implicitly exclusive focus on private-sector employment, its espousal of trickle-down economics, its use as a euphemism for the wealthy and as an ideological cudgel in the debate on government revenues, etc.—perhaps its most pernicious property is the way in which it artificially narrows our attention when we talk about unemployment. Job creators, with its agentive -or suffix, seeks to answer the question of who adds jobs to the economy. Left unasked are the crucial questions of when and why jobs are added.

This obfuscation is a problem for anyone who is genuinely concerned about unemployment. Even if one concedes the point that wealthy individuals and private-sector companies are primarily responsible for job growth, policy makers must seek to understand when and why those people and companies hire new workers. As Paul Krugman has repeatedly argued, it’s not for lack of cash on hand. Yet the term job creators unhelpfully implies that any remedy must be directed toward those who do the hiring. Even commentators who question the term’s premises can be constrained in their analysis by its morphological makeup: for example, John Paul Rollert suggests this week that we are simply focusing on the wrong who.

English lacks derivational morphemes that indicate the when and why of a given situation or event. That is, when and why have no morphological counterpart to who‘s -or suffix; instead, we have awkward noun compounds like job creation conditions and hiring reasons. The morphological facts are mirrored in the syntax of English: subjects are obligatory in English sentences, but adverbial phrases indicating time and reason are optional and can be freely omitted. Informally speaking, we might say that the language makes it easier to talk about agents than about times, reasons, and conditions. This is where grammar and rhetoric part ways: while the grammar of English does nothing to prevent us from asking about the when and why of job creation, the morphologically ready-made job creators distracts our attention from them with each repetition.


Metaframing marriage

From last week’s New York Times coverage of Michael Bloomberg’s speech on same-sex marriage:

The mayor also rejected one of the concerns raised by opponents of same-sex marriage: that it would infringe on religious freedom. He said that the measure envisioned by the governor and gay marriage advocates would not require any religious institution to perform or sanction a same-sex wedding. While emphasizing his “enormous respect for religious leaders on both sides of this issue,” the mayor framed same-sex marriage as a question of civil law, not faith.

To begin, it is a sad commentary on the state of the public discussion of same-sex marriage that Bloomberg needs to raise this point at all. Public policy regarding same-sex marriage can only possibly be about civil marriage: the legislature in Albany can no more require a religious organization to perform same-sex marriages than the Archdiocese of New York can ban the sale of contraceptives. This is an elementary point, yet public discourse about same-sex marriage marriage is almost always about marriage, full stop. The failure to insist on the very fundamental distinction between civil and religious marriage, whether as a result of carelessness or deliberate conflation, constitutes a major rhetorical victory for opponents of same-sex marriage.

It is thus disappointing to see the New York Times treat this distinction, and Bloomberg’s insistence on it, as an instance of framing in the final sentence above. To be sure, all political speech involves framing, and Bloomberg’s remarks are no exception. The use of the verb frame, however, implies strongly that Bloomberg’s views are simply one legitimate possibility among many, with no greater claim to validity than their opposite, when instead they proceed from the incontrovertible (if, for some, rhetorically inconvenient) fact that public policy regarding same-sex marriage is always and only about civil marriage, and cannot possibly have direct consequences for religious marriage. The NYT‘s formulation is doubly disappointing since, had the Times and other media outlets done a better job of reporting—and, indeed, framing—the issue over the past several years, it might not be necessary for someone like Bloomberg to provide the basic legal and factual framework that is a prerequisite for rational discussion of the issue.

(Update: the paragraph in question seems to have been cut from the online edition of the article after initially appearing on Thursday, May 26.)


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.


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.