On Words and Their Importance

By David L. Brown

I’ve noted that our President Elect has declared that he will “create or save” 2.5 million jobs in the next couple of years. Since I think words are important, it is interesting to analyze that statement, to see what if any meaning it may contain.

First, we need to note that the obvious intention is to convince the public that increased employment lies ahead, more jobs for happy American taxpayers, a payoff for those faithful supporters who voted him into office. But a closer look at what the words actually mean belies that interpretation.

Okay, here’s a worst case scenario to test how Obama’s statement might hold up if things don’t go at all well. Let’s say that employment drops by 25 million, but in the meantime Obama “creates” 2.5 million jobs (say, by hiring chronically unemployed street people to join civilian brigades to enforce new taxes). The net job loss will be 22.5 million jobs—but his prediction will have been demonstrated to be completely true because he will have “created” 2.5 million jobs. Nevermind that millions more were lost in the meantime.

Again, let’s say that employment drops by 22.5 million, but due to Obama’s efforts another 2.5 million jobs are “saved” (perhaps by keeping union workers on the payrolls of nationalized Detroit automakers and other failed companies). Again, his statement will be perfectly true, but the employment picture will be disastrous. He would have made good on his promise to “create” or “save” those jobs, and no one can deny it.

Now some might argue that AND and OR mean pretty much the same thing. That is not true. In Boolean logic OR and AND have specific meanings, and the same is true in the English language. OR does not mean the same as AND or NOT, those other key Boolean factors. The use of OR means that there are two (or more) possibilities and that they are mutually exclusive. Example: “Tomorrow it will rain OR snow.” Viewed analytically the form of that statement excludes the possibility that both will occur, while insisting that one of the alternatives will. To indicate that both might occur, one must say “Tomorrow it will rain AND snow”.

Apply that insight to the Obama statement and one can conclude that he will possibly create 2.5 million jobs, OR that he may save 2.5 million jobs. These are weasel words that allow for the possibility that there may be no job growth whatsoever (lost jobs = created jobs) or even net job losses. In this case there are multiple factors (individual jobs) so the OR command must be applied to each individual case. Thus, there could be a subset of “created” jobs and a subset of “saved” jobs. Either one could consist of any number less than 2.5 million but the total number of jobs “created” and “saved” must equal that amount.

As pointed out above, the promise is not pegged to any baseline, such as present job numbers. One might “create” one unit of something while many identical units are destroyed. One might “save” one unit of something while many identical units are lost. To lay claim to the former actions in these two statements without recognizing the latter possibilities is quite misleading.

We can also observe that nothing is implied about the quality of the jobs that will be created or saved. We could see 2.5 million highly paid technical personnel laid off and taking jobs as greeters at WalMart or hamburger flippers at McDonald’s. Would they represent individuals for whom jobs had been created? In terms of the vague statement issued by Obama, absolutely. This is an example of PITS reasoning. (I just made up that acronym for the occasion, so you saw it here first. It stands for Pie In The Sky, and can be used in phrases such as “It’s the PITS” or “Our economy seems to be in the PITS,” or even “Life may be a bowl of cherries, so why do we only get the PITS”.)

All of the above scenarios could be accurately described by the words of Obama’s statement, which is therefore meaningless and misleading rhetorical garbage.

Unfortunately we better get used to this kind of empty rhetoric, not only from the One but from those already practiced in the art of obfuscation, the experienced political class of our nation. Example: Bill Clinton on what the meaning of “is” is. Some of them have been learning this craft for decades, and perhaps were born with the natural ability to be human weasels. In fact, maybe they ARE weasels, having taken human form, perhaps through some mysterious process involving intelligent design. Could be….would explain a lot in fact.

George Orwell would have understood all of this very well, as a re-reading of Animal Farm will confirm. (“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”)

Meanwhile, be prepared to listen even more carefully than ever to what comes out of Washington. And never forget that the best way to tell whether a politician is lying is to check whether his mouth is moving.

Finally, in case one might wonder if Obama’s choice of words might have been due to mere carelessness, I have two comments:

First, it should be of no little concern to think that our future President makes careless use of words (and there was much evidence of this during the campaign).

But second, I think it extremely likely that direct, formal statements such as the one we’ve discussed here are very carefully drafted and vetted by the President elect’s advisors, and it is almost certain that the use of the word OR was deliberate, and with intent to obfuscate and deceive. (Unless these people are even more dim-witted and sloppy than I think, which is a definite possibility.

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