To Be Or Not To Be (A Cut)

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There's a lot of discussion out there about what consitutes a "cut" in Social Security benefits.

A: You're reducing the amount that people would get if there were no changes.
B: But it would cut the rate of growth, not the actual benefit, which will stay the same in real dollars.
A: But it is a reduction in the promised benefit.
B: Well no, nothing was promised. It was estimated, extrapolated based on current law, which is and always has been subject to change.

I could go on, and you can tell which letter I favor. But I will present a slightly different argument for not calling it a cut: it's poor communication.

Most labelling is, of course. If I call Bush a great guy, what does that mean? Is he large? Or nice? Or brilliant? All of the above? And even if we figure that out, to what degree is he great?

The whole point of labels is to streamline communication. As it turns out, in a given context, we probably understand in what way he is said to be great, and we don't really care about the specific degree, because it's probably not important. It's just a convenience, a way to sum up more complex truths, simply. That is what labels exist for. It's only a small part of the truth, but that's OK.

But when we're talking about Social Security, this isn't sufficient. "Cut" can mean many things. It can mean a reduction in currently expected benefits, or a reduction of benefits in real terms. It could mean increasing the retirement age, or it could mean means testing. This is an issue where the devil is in the details, and it is not sufficient communication to tritely label it.

There is only one reason to sum it all up by calling it a "cut": to obfuscate the details. There's no other reason to do it.

Again, look at the purpose of all labels: to conveniently sum up more complex truths, simply. But using "cut" here is not a convenient way to look at the truth, because it actually confuses matters through its inspecificity, as evidenced by the long semantic discussions that have inevitably followed, discussions which have been far more complex and difficult to follow than if we had just explained the specific natures of these "cuts" in the first place.

That's the most clear, and inarguable, sign of poor semantics: when you take more time to explain and justify your semantic choices than if you had made different choices at the start.

The question is, why obfuscate the details in such a poorly communicated manner? Why bother? And the answer is not new, it goes on all the time, and it is increasingly becoming one of my greater pet peeves.

It's like calling "blogging" "journalism." Or "Bush" "Hitler." We know full well that the comparison is, at best, imperfect, but we hope to, by expanding the definition of the latter word to include the former, modify how we think of the former. This avoids a more reasoned discussion of exactly what is worthwhile about "blogging" or what is evil about "Bush."

That's not to say such reasoning doesn't happen along with the labelling, but the labelling is often an additional tactic being used. The problem is that it doesn't work, as honest communication. It only tends to, in the short term, help to push an agenda. But even that is short-lived.

Let's say that in my mind, I see "journalism" as "professional writers adhering to a certain set of standards and practices who report news." A "blogger," to me, doesn't fit the meaning of "journalist" in my mind, maybe because much of what he does I don't consider to be news, or because he has a different set of standards and practices.

Now, "journalism" is more highly respected in my mind due to its longer history, because of great things that have happened in journalism. And I also see it as distinct from "blogging." So in order to grant some of that credibility my mind lends to "journalism" also to "blogging," proponents of the latter try to convince my mind that they are of the same thing, that "blogging" is "journalism."

In order for me to accept this, the meaning I have for "journalism" must necessarily be modified. But this is counterproductive to the entire purpose of labels, which is to simplify and streamline: the broader a definition gets, the less useful it is. And this credibility shift works both ways, because not only does it in the short term raise up "blogging" to the higher level in my mind, in the long term it will bring down "journalism" to the lowest common denominator. So if "blogging" doesn't improve itself, and I think of "blogging" as "journalism," then eventually I will necessarily think less of "journalism" than I do now.

Similarly, when many people think of a "cut," they don't think necessarily think of a change in a nonbinding actuarial estimate. Some people probably do, but many don't. But opponents of Bush want you to think of that as a "cut," because "cut" is pejorative, and they want you to think ill of Bush's plan. And they don't care that it is poor communication, because if they can through their justifications of the semantic choice convince you it is indeed a cut, that is good, because if they had just explained what it actually is, they run the risk of you not thinking about it in negative terms.

And they don't care that in the long term it might modify our definitions of "cut" in an unuseful way, for two reasons: they are thinking only of the short term, and they can always try to redefine it again later if necessary.

That said, this goes both ways politically, too. Insisting something is not a "cut" is trying to narrow the definition of "cut" so that this thing doesn't fit, thereby attempting to raise its profile in my mind. "It's OK, because it is not a cut!" That said, this argument is usually not offered in a vacuum, but as a reaction to the definition-broadening previously described. That doesn't make it any more reasonable in terms of the efficacy of communication, but it seems a bit less objectionable in moral terms, to me. However, my preferred reaction would be along the lines of, "let's not argue about whether this is a cut or not, let's define precisely what is happening, and let people decide if it is a good thing or a bad thing on a factual basis instead of a semantic one."

This is a process that goes on in our brains constantly. We are always modifying the meanings we have for words. But this process usually happens for a naturally occurring utilitarian purpose, not to meet some agenda.

I can't ask people to not use this tactic to make their case. People who use it mostly, at some level, understand what they are doing and don't care. But I can try to spread the word that people who see it can recognize it. I adjure people to not get caught up in trite labelling intended to help or harm the thing being labelled, and instead ask, "what do you mean by that?"

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<pudge/*> (pronounced "PudgeGlob") is thousands of posts over many years by Pudge.

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