Lost in The Language Tonight

Language is very important–after all, it is how each of us communicates with others. No language = no communication. Spoken and written language are useful because we can use them to communicate highly complex constructs in such a way as to make those ideas approachable by just about everyone who understands the common language. Well, that’s how it ought to work. Peggy Noonan has some useful thoughts on how the rush (on the part of the President’s men and women) toward universal healthcare may well be using big words to confuse those who would otherwise understand:

As she [Sebelius] 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?

“Maybe we are not supposed to understand.” Maybe Ms. Noonan is on to something here. She goes on:

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.

I think perhaps the people in the administration speak this way, in part, because that is how they assume professionals in their positions ought to speak. After all, jargon is the province of the “in group” whatever that group may be. I know that jargon is an essential part of my language on a regular basis. One key difference between me and Ms. Sebelius? I’m not an elected or appointed government official who is answerable to the general public.

That aside, there is definitely a component of confusion (perhaps planned) in the information supporting many of the federal government’s recent intrusions, whether we speak of banking, automaking, doctoring or warfighting.

After all, if I (or anyone) says simple things, people might have a clue about what is happening before it happens. That could be downright dangerous. Or, as someone might be saying in a conference room somewhere in the greater DC area right now:

In the event that communciation of non-complex matters is achieved without filtering or obfuscation, members of various political constituencies are more likely to gain knowledge of events before those events have actually been executed in the manner prescribed.

2 thoughts on “Lost in The Language Tonight

  1. O.K., how’s this for simple language: we pay twice as much for our health care and don’t get any healthier or live longer than folks in countries with public health systems. 15% to 30% of what we spend on health care doesn’t pay for health care but covers paperwork, executive salaries, and other overhead. Half of bankruptcies are tied to big medical bills. The real word games are coming from the Republican ideologues trying to distract us from the real problem.

  2. @ caheidelberger:

    I believe that CC’s point about simple language did not come down to dealing with statistics.

    But let’s analyze your simple language. So “we” pay twice as much for our health care as “folks” in countries with public health systems. I am very interested in seeing where these statistics come from – and not for the usual “you don’t have the evidence reasons.”

    The reason I’m interested: these statistics do not include, as cited here, what countries we are talking about or why these folks “pay” anything at all. We do not even know what “pay” in this context means.

    For example, does “pay” mean the cost out-of-pocket per hospital/clinic visit? If that is the case, then of course we do pay more; that point would be elementary. Does “pay” mean the total cost of the health system in each country? If so, then we would have to go the extra step of juxtaposing that with how much (more, obviously) we have in total assets with respect to that industry.

    Further, has this source taken into account the FDA, the free-market pharmaceutical industry, or our educational system in analyzing the two systems? For all the bitching about the cost of health care, we must realize that the industrialized nations are on the front lines when it comes to research, development and testing of new operations, drugs or procedures. These things all incur cost.
    (Incidentally, our “third-world aid” to Africa, for example, does not just include the cost of the AIDS medicines we send; it also includes the development of those medicines.)

    And these “periphery” costs will not go away with socialized health care. They will be carried over to the government-run system.

    We must examine what we are left with: the incentives a socialized health care policy would create. Those incentives: 1) those who could not previously afford health care could now attain it. 2) Tax shelters are now a bigger incentive for those footing the bill for the health care that those who could previously not afford it have. 3) Research will no longer have “the invisible hand” of competition to generate new ideas, methods, or medicines. Those researchers will be paid more, per length of the project, if the cure for cancer takes 50 years, instead of 10.

    Sounds great, though. I’m glad we can communicate simply.


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