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More Washington Gibberish


That recent spike in gasoline prices provided more examples of the strange tongue spoken in the nation’s capital. I call it Washington Gibberish.

On the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota called the price increase a “crisis.” Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, sitting at his side, did not disagree. He joined Dorgan in calling for a Justice Department investigation into why prices had risen.

Note the word “crisis.” In English, a crisis is a dangerous situation requiring immediate action. In Washington Gibberish, the word has a far different meaning. Consider the context: by May, the price of gasoline had gone up 20 cents in 1996 and was averaging about $1.27 a gallon. Nevertheless, after adjusting for inflation, gasoline was still cheaper than it had been for most of the century. A long motor trip might be several bucks more expensive because of the higher price.

Is that a crisis? Not in English. But in Gibberish it is. In Gibberish, “crisis” is what a politician calls something when he needs an excuse to interfere with people’s peaceful activities. It is a situation that, in his view, only government can address through its coercive powers.

By definition, it is also a situation that the government is not responsible for. You will never hear the president say, “In light of the current crisis, I have ordered the Justice Department to investigate how the government has screwed things up.” That combination of words does not exist in Washington Gibberish.

It doesn’t matter how many obvious reasons there are for the rise in gasoline prices — the hard winter, which diverted oil to heating fuel; environmental regulations; uncertainty over Iraq’s ability to sell its crude; new demand for oil from the developing countries; or simply inflation — the politicians are sure that it is all an oil-industry conspiracy. The Gibberish definition of “crisis” dictates that.

When Republicans weighed in by calling for repeal of Clinton’s 1993 4.3-cent-a-gallon gas tax, more Gibberish was spewed about. The Republicans were right to call for repeal, though they were too late and too moderate. (Why not repeal the whole gas tax?) Their repeal effort should not have been linked to the price increase. That just made them look like price manipulators. It also let the Democrats mock them by demanding a guarantee that the 4.3 cents would go to consumers.

The Democrats’ reaction to the repeal proposal was classic Washington Gibberish. They asked how the Republicans would pay for the $30-billion tax cut.

Anytime someone calls for a tax cut, the tax lovers demand to know how it is going to be paid for. That question could only be phrased in Washington Gibberish. Think about it: the government takes money from the people. If a tax is cut, the government stops taking so much from the people. What’s to pay for? Tax cuts don’t cost anything! Imagine if a professional thief decided not to steal one night. Wouldn’t it be silly for his wife to ask: “How are you going to pay for your decision not to steal?”

When a politician asks how a tax cut will be paid for, he is really asking how his pet government programs will be paid for if the taxpayers are not looted as much as before. Tax cuts do have a cost — to the government. It’s out that amount of money. So if it wants to continue financing programs, it has to find the money elsewhere. But let’s be clear: tax cuts don’t have a price tag; government programs do.

If we could recast the tax-cut discussion from Gibberish to English, the debate could be dramatically different. Instead of wondering how tax cuts would be paid for, we’d be discussing how government boondoggles would be paid for. And once that discussion is opened, it’s a short step to asking if those boondoggles should be paid for at all.

House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey suggested cutting money from the federal education budget to reduce the government’s need for revenue. That provided another good example of Washington Gibberish. Senator Dorgan accused Armey of wanting to cut “education.” That’s a dumb idea, Dorgan said, because education is an investment in our future.

Note the subtleties of Washington Gibberish. Cutting a part of the federal budget labeled “education” equates to cutting money for actual education. When you think in Gibberish, no consideration can be given to the possibility that the budget not only fails to advance education but in fact stands in the way of it. Cutting the budget actually would be pro-education. But there is no equivalent of those words in Washington Gibberish.

Washington Gibberish is the only language based on the ideas that “reality is negotiable” (according to buttons worn by Capitol Hill budget staffers a few years ago) and that manipulating words has the effect of manipulating real things. So, if a congressman votes for a bill titled “The Education Improvement Act,” he can tell his constituents that he voted to improve education, regardless of what the bill does. In other words, in Washington Gibberish, “The Education Improvement Act” translates to the “Let Us Pretend That We Improved Education Act (Ha Ha).” Once you get the hang of this Gibberish, Washington becomes easy to understand.

Someone once suggested that we’d be better off if congressional bills were titles only. Then members of Congress could vote for the Education Improvement Act, the Crime Prevention Act, the Economic Revitalization Act, the Poverty Eradication Act, the Creation of Heaven on Earth Act — and not do any harm to the country. It’s not a bad idea.

You can see this point in the recent discussion about raising the minimum wage. It is well established that when government sets a minimum wage, it hurts the least employable people. If the wage is higher than the market would set for those people, they will not find jobs. They may even lose jobs they now hold. (If the wage is set at or below the market level, the law is superfluous.) When a few of the more enlightened members of Congress pointed that out, the defenders of the increase could only say: “But we haven’t raised the minimum wage in many years. People who work should be able to earn a living wage.”

Translated from Gibberish, that means: “Don’t bother me with inconvenient facts. I want to be able to say I did something nice for the working poor, and I need the support of organized labor.” If a minimum-wage supporter is pressed on the harm that is done to the poor, he’ll say: “Raising the minimum wage won’t necessarily have significant negative effects.” Translated, that means: “I don’t have to worry. Those who lose jobs or can’t find them won’t realize that the minimum wage is to blame.”

A final bit of Gibberish, now that the tax season is behind us. The Internal Revenue Service is always bragging that the income tax is based on “voluntary compliance.” You might wonder, then, why there are penalties for failure to file and to pay. That’s because “voluntary compliance” is Gibberish, not English. When a mugger demands your wallet at gunpoint, he expects you to reach into your pocket and hand it over. That’s voluntary compliance. Involuntary compliance would mean the mugger reaches into your pocket and takes the wallet himself.

The same goes with the IRS. Since you are expected to furnish to the government (possibly incriminating) information about your tax liability, it is called voluntary compliance. That you are threatened with fines and prison if you don’t comply is irrelevant. Involuntary compliance would be the IRS’s telling you how much you owe without your cooperation. As Representative Charles Rangel of New York, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, has said: “What makes a voluntary system work is the fear of sanctions and penalties.”

As you can see, what you and I mean by voluntary compliance is not what the IRS means. The use of Gibberish may sow cynicism and disrespect for legitimate law, but that doesn’t deter the politicians and bureaucrats from persisting in its use.

When you come right down to it, Gibberish is a testament to the low regard in which political leaders hold the citizenry. They may praise the people for their intelligence and good sense. But when you see them systematically lie in their campaigns and their speeches, it all rings hollow. They just don’t think we’re terribly smart.

And considering how long we’ve put up with the Gibberish and other nonsense, maybe they’re right.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.