Working in Washington as a young man, I asked my friend Linda, "How do you people feel?" referring to some of the key issues of the day. Linda, who came from a different racial background than I, bristled. "We don't think as a people," she said. "Just like you, we are individuals!"
Used judiciously, words can inform and enlighten. Used with less care, words can reveal subconscious prejudice, as in my youthful phrase, "you people." And repeated often enough, some words and phrases fool us into thinking they are so.
In news reports, one nation's military action is an unprovoked attack. A similar move by another country is a justifiable response. Can you guess which country the writer considers friend and which foe?
A few years ago, the Federal Highway Administration began calling vehicle collisions crashes rather than accidents. An accident sounds unavoidable. A crash does not. One carefully chosen word seeks to remind us that we can prevent collisions.
Last month, we heard wrangling over how to pay for the federal payroll tax cut. Nonsense. The government pays for things like purchases, personnel costs, grants and benefits. Tax cuts, however, are not an expense. They represent a reduction in government income. The government doesn't pay for a reduction in revenues any more than workers in a severe economic downturn pay for reductions in their wages.
If income or revenues decrease, neither individuals nor governments pay for something; they figure out how to get by on less. Given pervasive double-speak such as "paying for tax cuts," should it surprise us that many of the policies resulting from our ill-informed debates are incoherent?
We do this in Utah, too. We still hear about Rep. Stephen Sandstrom's 2011 "immigration enforcement only bill." Why only? Most bills we run in the state Legislature deal ONLY with a limited area of policy change rather than comprehensive overhauls. So why not routinely add only to our description of other bills? This year, we've heard no reporting about the divorce waiting period-only bill, the voter ID privacy-only bill or the computer-adaptive testing only measure. Somehow, only Sandstrom's immigration measure merits the added epithet.
Finally, here's one last example of a phrase that can get us sidetracked. The idea that government can, or should try to, "grow the economy" began in Washington but has since expanded nationwide. I was taught that the verb "grow," used this way, was intransitive. A pumpkin is something I can grow, the economy is not; it grows when conditions are right. Government efforts to make it grow, be they grammatical or otherwise, are futile.
I first remember hearing this awkward construct about growing the economy from former President Bill Clinton. I attributed it to misguided confidence in the government's ability to force our economy to do the bidding of policymakers. He seemed to be saying, "It will grow because I will it to grow." Today, it seems every government officeholder or candidate wants to "grow the economy." Increasingly frequent repetition of this phrase over the past 20 years has misled more and more of us into believing that growing the economy is something the government can actually do.
The words people choose become a lens through which we view reality. Unchallenged, the preconceptions built into the stock phrases all around us make the lens murky. We stop seeing things as they really are. These oh so familiar, and unthinking, terms cloud our perceptions and our judgment.
"Stay out of the way," I remember hearing Ronald Reagan say, and businesses will succeed. The economy will grow.
Those words I understand.
Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, serves in the Utah House of Representatives. He is an architect and small-businessman. He worked for the Reagan administration in Washington for six years early in his career.