The indecipherable language of government has actually become dangerous to the well-being of the nation. As the federal government claims ever greater powers, its language has become vague to the point of meaningless and meaningless to the point of menacing.
The other day I was watching “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, and Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, came on from Washington to talk about health care. A reporter on the set, Andrew Ross Sorkin of the New York Times, asked a few clear and direct questions: What is President Obama’s health-care plan, how would it work, what would it look like? I leaned forward. Finally I will understand. Ms. Sebelius began to answer in that dead and deadening governmental language that does not reveal or clarify but instead wraps legitimate queries in clouds of words and sends them on their way. I think I heard “accessing affordable quality health care,” “single payer plan vis-à-vis private multiparty insurers” and “key component of quality improvement.” In any case, she didn’t answer the question, which was a disappointment but not a surprise. No one answers the question anymore.
As she spoke, I attempted a sort of simultaneous translation, which is what most of us do now when we hear our political figures, translate from their language to ours. “Access health care” must mean “go to the doctor.” But I gave up. Then a thought crossed my mind: Maybe we’re supposed to give up! Maybe we’re supposed to be struck dumb, hypnotized by words and phrases that are aimed not at making things clearer but making them more obscure and impenetrable. Maybe we’re not supposed to understand.
I shouldn’t pick too hard on Ms. Sebelius specifically. Most people in the administration, and many in government, speak as she speaks, and have for many years. In her case there’s reason to believe it’s a quirk. A New York Times profile recently had her recalling with self-deprecating charm the time her child ran a high fever and she caused a bit of confusion by forgetting to say, “We have to go to the hospital!” and announcing instead, “This unsustainable increase in body temperature requires immediate access to a local quality health-care facility!” I made that up, but it was believable, wasn’t it?
New Class gobbledygook, which is more prevalent than ever, is also more destructive than ever because the government itself is doing more than ever. The Journal this week had a front page story reporting that the Obama administration is attempting to come up with ways, including federal regulations and “moral suasion,” to change the way employees and executives are paid in the financial services industry “including at companies that did not receive federal bailout money.” This is rather stunning, and is just one very small area of the new activism.
But back to language. Lately it is as if the American government, having decided in its programs, assumptions and philosophy to become more European, has at the same time decided it would be amusing to speak to the American people only in French.
Which would give rise to a simple and wholly understandable suspicion that the government doesn’t speak clearly about what it’s doing for the reason that they know that if people fully understood they would say, “Oh that’s not a good idea,” or, “The cost of that will kill us.”
I think there are two major but not fully formed or fully articulated fears among thinking Americans right now, and the deliberate obscurity of official language only intensifies those fears.
The first is that Mr. Obama’s government, in all its flurry of activism, may kill the goose that laid the golden egg. This is as dreadful and obvious a cliché as they come, but too bad, it’s what people fear. They see the spending plans and tax plans, the regulation and reform hunger, the energy proposals and health-care ambitions, and they—we—wonder if the men and women doing all this, working in their separate and discrete areas, are being overseen by anyone saying, “By the way, don’t kill the goose.”
The goose of course is the big, messy, spirited, inspiring, and sometimes in some respects damaging but on the whole brilliant and productive wealth-generator known as the free-market capitalist system. People do want things cleaned up and needed regulations instituted, and they don’t mind at all if the very wealthy are more heavily taxed, but they greatly fear a goose killing. Economic freedom in all its chaos and disorder has kept us rich for 200 years, and allowed us as a nation to be generous and strong at home and in the world. But the goose can be killed—by carelessness, hostility, incrementalism, paralysis, and by no one saying, “Don’t kill the goose.”
Complicating all this is the fact that so many of the Obama people seem to be extremely bright and pleasant academic types with no particular and personal knowledge of business in America. They are not messy businessmen with a love for the system that lifted them. Mr. Obama himself, like John McCain, has shown no particular interest in making money in his life, with the latter preferring military and then political glory, and the former preferring political power.
The second great fear is that the balance between those who pay taxes and those who need benefits will be left, after the great flurry, all out of whack. When this balance is deeply disturbed or distorted, when the number of those who need to take truly overwhelms those who need to make, a tipping point occurs. People become disheartened. Generations become resigned. Tiredness steps in. We will miss irrational exuberance.
Is anyone in the Obama administration watching this? If they are, they’re not saying, certainly not clearly. I continue to be astounded by how much Mr. Obama reminds me in his first few months of George W. Bush in his first few years. There is a sense with both men that they always pushed too hard, were always revolutionizing and doing “the work of generations,” as Mr. Bush put it. They appear to share an insensitivity to the delicacy of even so great a nation as ours, an inability to see limits, and to know at a certain point that what you do with a nation becomes what you do to it.
Do members of the administration speak obscurely because they can’t help themselves, or do they speak the way they speak because they really aren’t all that keen to have people understand them? Maybe they calculate that lack of clarity ensures maximum ability to maneuver. But maybe they should think less about maneuvering. They’re not helping the prevailing sense of national anxiety by speaking in a special lingo all their own. After all, it’s not their health-care system they’re reforming, it is America’s. It would be nice if America were allowed to know what exactly the plan is, and how it would work, and who would pay, and how.
* * *
As for the Republicans, the administration is giving them an opening. There could be gain in becoming the party that speaks with concrete honesty, and in a known human language, on the great issues of the day. The GOP could become the party that doesn’t make you translate, and doesn’t leave you giving up. I wonder if the party right now, for all the battering it’s experienced the past few years, is still quick enough to see an opening like this.