Lies, Damn Lies, and Orwell

Thank Christ for the stimulus. It’s created — or saved!!! — either “thousands and thousands,” “more than two million,” or “1.5 million” jobs, depending on which member of the Obama Administration is being asked. The stimulus, moreover, will without a doubt continue to create or save either countless thousands or millions of other jobs. Or will it? As Reason’s Jacob Sullum notes, the category of “created or saved” is… rather slippery:

As The New York Times notes, the Obama administration has abandoned the attempt to count the number of jobs “created or saved” by the stimulus money—i.e., jobs that would not exist but for the special funds from Washington. Not surprisingly, figuring that out proved to be a headache for grant recipients, who were essentially asked to compare the current situation with a parallel universe in which Congress never passed the Recovery Act. Instead they are now officially asked to do what many (or most) of them probably were doing anyway: count the jobs “funded” by stimulus money…

So school districts (the main source of the jobs that were formerly described as “created or saved”) can simply divide their federal money by the quarterly compensation for teachers and report the result as jobs “funded” by the Recovery Act, even if no teachers would have been laid off in the abence of the money. If a public housing authority uses stimulus money to replace windows in one of its apartment complexes, and the project involves three guys from Ace Windows and Doors working full-time for a month, that counts as a job for that quarter, even if all of the guys would have been employed without this particular contract—and even if the housing authority would have replaced the windows without the federal grant.


Translation: This meaningless, unverifiable number can be used to validate another meaningless, unverifiable number.

Well, what of it? Everyone knows that politicians — even Barack Obama — stretch the truth a little every now and then… and President Obama only does it for the greater good… right? Well… maybe. But the President’s habitual reliance on such slippery language — to say nothing of his various underlings’ reliance on the selfsame — represent nothing less than what George Orwell would describe as a cynical debasement of the English language*:

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.


In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.


The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism.

Elsewhere in the same essay he writes

Statements like “Marshal Petain was a true patriot,” “The Soviet press is the freest in the world,” The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution,” are almost always made with intent to deceive…

To this list, which Orwell describes as a list of literary “swindles and perversions,” it seems that one can perhaps add the phrase “we have created or saved…”

* See: George Orwell: “Politics and the English Language,” 1956. This piece is worth reading simply for its critique of modern written English.


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