Defending the Indefensible

June 4th, 2013
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My “Letter from Calgary” column in the April 2013 issue of the Investment Executive newspaper:

Alberta says it’s cutting back. But the numbers tell a different story

George Orwell had contempt for euphemism. As he wrote in “Politics and the English Language,” his great essay from 1946: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Thus, political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Following last month’s budget, Alberta is running its sixth deficit in a row, refuses to cut spending, is dipping into its “rainy day” fund and going into debt. Alberta is at the point at which the numbers themselves are so incomprehensible they’re virtually made to lie.

No fewer than four deficit figures are bandied about, starting with a $451-million “operational” deficit, a $1.98-billion deficit, borrowing of $4.3 billion and a $6.3-million “cash requirement.” A free-spending government’s cash “requirement” seems virtually infinite; here, it means “shortfall.”

In addition, money is moved among various government “funds,” which themselves have been renamed. Comparisons to previous years are all but impossible. The main news stories omit the most fundamental part of any budget, its spending. Adding to the confusion, certain spending figures are provided in three-year bundles and others in one-year increments. And the habitual use of “cuts” or “reductions” masks the fact that the government is, for the most part, lowering future increases.

Premier Alison Redford’s finance minister, Doug Horner, said that about $1 billion in actual cuts – less than 2.5% of spending – were considered and would have been “great for numbers” but “not the responsible thing to do.” Balancing a budget thus becomes irresponsible, and pandering to pressure groups the height of virtue. Wrote Orwell: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.”

Instead of unmasking the perversion of language, the news media mainly provides cover. The Globe and Mail pronounced the recent budget an “austerity” budget featuring “slashing” of spending. That is how cancelling planned increases is now described.

This echoed the sequestering battle in the U.S. – whose reductions, coincidentally, are of a similar proportion to the cuts Horner won’t make – with its hysterical predictions of unpatrolled borders and unmanned air-traffic control towers. In both countries, the premise seems to be that virtually 100% of government services, including things the public values the most, come from the final 3% of spending.

Isn’t it the other way around? In the private sector, the first 3% of anything is “low-hanging fruit.” But the politicians, bureaucrats and public-sector unions make their cuts as painful as possible. On cue, it was learned that one of the victims of “austerity” will be a $1.8-million criminal monitoring program. There’s just no fat in the system!

But euphemism is a dangerous tool. Initially, it can work to fool others. Eventually, the users themselves become unable to think clearly. Cold cynicism gives way to delusion. Another quote from Orwell: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. Our great language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Link to the published story.

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By George Koch
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