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Today in Newspeak

by Cyrille Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 11:19:30 AM EST

This is cross-posted on my blog.

Reading the New Statesman correspondence section (yes, I know...), I came across a letter referring to a leader that had apparently stated that the UK needed an extra one million houses over the next five years is the level to meet present needs. The letter proceeds to explain via a small calculation that the figure is actually four millions over ten years. So far, so good (or not - I really have no idea about the actual figures, the calculation is worded in a way that might suggest that there is some confusion between yearly need and backlog, and I don't know the source of the numbers used), I don't mean to dispute the need for extra housing in the UK.

But the reader, after apparently making a call for a strong building program (this is about meeting present "needs", not fanciful wishes), then adds:
"A damaged economy cannot afford to allocate such a large share of limited resources to housebuilding."

This left me nonplussed on several levels.

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There are weasel words in action there. By that I don't mean necessarily that the writer is trying to be a weasel -the words themselves may be doing the weaselling, by making it difficult to think objectively about issues. Look at the adjectives: "damaged" economy, "limited" resources. Even "large" share, when no estimates are given of what the share would be to reach the target.

So, in what way is the UK's economy "damaged"? I can think of several which could be meaningful, but which one you have in mind will have very different consequences for the argument.

Damaged because corruption is rampant? One could say that the UK is a class society where money brings a lot of power, but it is not clear how relevant that is to the inability to commit resources to housebuilding. Landlords may want to maintain a shortage in order to keep prices inflated, and may use their influence in order to stop the government from enacting policies that would reduce this shortage. This would be a coherent argument, but it's hard to read the writer as making that one.

Damaged because it has just lost a considerable extent of its productive power? This would be puzzling, as it is hard to make a case that the UK has just been through that. Moreover, when countries do experience that kind of damage -this would typically happen during a war- housing tends to be the very priority immediately afterwards, and often to a much greater extent than would be needed to get 400 thousand houses a year in the UK. Actually, since there are many cases in history of countries doing just that, we can put to rest any notion that "a damaged economy cannot afford" it.

Damaged because it is imbalanced, being too highly reliant on the financial sector? The word "damaged" would feel a bit odd to make that point, but in any case, would that not be all the more reason to try and rebalance by committing resources to the needs that such imbalances would have led to neglecting?

Damaged because of an uneducated workforce? I don't see a clear case that this is true of the UK, but that surely would not hamper housebuilding too much. Because it can't feed the population? Again, this simply is not the case. It's hard to avoid the impression that by "damaged" the writer meant "in depression" (there may also be some confusion between "economy" and "the government"). But that makes the rest of the sentence mind-boggling.

First, if we are in a depression -and we are, what possible sense can we make of the "limited" that qualifies the resources? The very definition of a depression is that considerable resources are left idle, that the economy produces much less than its capacity. Try replacing "limited" with "idle" and see if the sentence feels convincing. Yes, resources are limited -the universe is, after all. But that is a very poor way to describe them right now, when they are much less limited than usual, when so many of them are idle.
A major problem in fighting depressions is having sufficiently large projects to absorb the slack in the economy. In this, the enormity of the task should be welcome -although I could think of other ways to achieve the same results if it was not there, one could say that it's almost fortunate then that there should be such a shortage in housing. Not fortunate for those currently without housing. But fortunate for the "damaged" economy, which thus has a get out of jail card to play.

In passing, since we are talking about 10 years of investment, it is a rather controversial and, even to my often gloomy eyes, somewhat pessimistic statement to claim that the UK will remain in depression throughout. And if that's not what is meant, we are back to trying to understand "damaged". Indeed, one could make the case that, once the economy is no longer depressed, such a big program could have a destabilising effect, especially when it comes to an abrupt end. But surely that would call for actually starting at a higher pace (which would resorb the depression faster) and gradually reducing construction to the long-term trend as the economy recovers. Also, this idea should be expressed as something like "it would be too big for a no-longer damaged economy". Again, I am not necessarily backing that claim, but at least it would make some sense.

Anyway, the writer mentions "limited" resources, but argues against committing too big a share of them. So it can only be a problem if it displaced something more important. Yet, just one line before, the potential program has been sized as being what was required to meet present needs. So what would be a higher priority for those resources? Must we reckon that almost all of the UK production and consumption is targeted at more important things than housing? This would not be the same UK that I live in.

And thus words that will gather collections of "hear, hear" in most debates aggregate into something meaningless or absurd, yet which can hardly be objected to. Indeed, I would not be surprised to see that very sentence in the mouth of a minister.
Who could argue that the economy is damaged? Who could argue that resources are limited? And does it not stand to reason that a damaged economy, with limited resources to boot, cannot easily undertake programs that seem improbable in their sizes?
Of course, if one could ask what precisely is meant by "damaged", by "economy", or the meaning in that context of "limited resources", then the entire argument crumbles. But try doing that and you instantly become the annoying nit-picker, the arrogant lecturer, and become instantly inaudible. How could one argue against such a slogan? And so Newspeak claims ever more territory. It makes it impossible to think sensibly.

I would be reluctant to judge the writer's intentions too readily. Recent conversations with someone who cannot be suspected of right-wing a priori (or lack of intelligence) showed me how sneaky some wordings can become, leading to pre-defined thoughts. Crucially, and while he retained critical thinking while experiencing it, he had been (and still is I guess, though now as colleagues from a different department) exposed to neo-liberal professors. Even if you screen out much of the implausible assumptions, some of the words are likely to stay with you, and with those words it can become impossible to think clearly.


I don't know what (or rather how much) should be done about UK housing. But I do know that, appealing though it might sound, the statement "a damaged economy cannot afford to allocate such a large share of limited resources to housebuilding" would need to be improved to reach the status of "wrong".

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I suspect it is the usual debt phobia at work, The economy is "damaged" because too much of it is sustained by debt and houses, per se, are not considered to increase productive capacity - beyond the once off and temporary increase required to actually build them. No mention of multiplier effects or the importance of having people actually live where the jobs are. One of the articles of faith of mainstream "serious" discussion of the economy in the UK appears to be: "Debt is too high" together with "The EU is damaging Britain" and its all the fault of the Unions/Government Red tape/high taxes - take your pick.

Index of Frank's Diaries
by Frank Schnittger (mail Frankschnittger at hot male dotty communists) on Tue Aug 6th, 2013 at 11:16:06 AM EST
Apparently the remarkable events of 2008 were so unlikely some bankers were labelling them as '25 sigma' events.

See e.g. here.

So very, very unlikely, it's astounding they happened at all.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Tue Aug 6th, 2013 at 12:30:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
What is even less likely, but shockingly true, is that similar events happened every time we allowed the Finance Sector to operate in such an unregulated manner and that as the US rolled back regulations aggressively beginning in the 1970's, it experienced a series of crises.

A 25 sigma event that is a repeatable economic experiment and  has warning tremors! That's so unlikely I reckon it surely must quality for an extra sigma.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Aug 9th, 2013 at 12:26:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
But the reader, after apparently making a call for a strong building program (this is about meeting present "needs", not fanciful wishes), then adds:
"A damaged economy cannot afford to allocate such a large share of limited resources to housebuilding."
What more is there to say than Keynes'
Thus we are so sensible, have schooled ourselves to so close a semblance of prudent financiers, taking careful thought before we add to the "financial" burdens of posterity by building them houses to live in, that we have no such easy escape from the sufferings of unemployment. We have to accept them as an inevitable result of applying to the conduct of the State the maxims which are best calculated to "enrich" an individual by enabling him to pile up claims to enjoyment which he does not intend to exercise at any definite time.


Finance is the brain [tumour] of the economy
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Aug 6th, 2013 at 11:20:38 AM EST
I would suggest that the 'damage' largely consists of the capture of government by an elite intent on wealth extraction and capture first and foremost. So, if the houses get built that elite will want to insure high economic rents accruing to them from that result, but, more likely, they will identify ways to extract more wealth more quickly from other 'investment' and the rest of the economy can go to Hell.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Aug 6th, 2013 at 01:54:07 PM EST
I realise that much of that is not new, and indeed the Keynes' thoughts that Migeru quotes are an appropriate response.
But the tyranny of empty words is something that I am quite sensitive to.

Of course, you can never lead a frontal assault or you turn any audience against you, so over the years I had developed the full asking questions / reformulating toolkit.

However, it seems that even that is considered a step too far, and I recently lost a major contract for engaging in the practice. As I was told, "We are very clear on what clients value about us" which apparently was "being left in a happy place" and under no circumstances getting the impression that something they had said might be questioned or reformulated, even if they had just essentially said that the earth was flat and Mercury floated on water.

To rub it in, the message then concluded on a deluge of empty-words slogans:
"Therefore we prioritise HOW we engage with clients, just as much as WHAT we do for them.  Our belief is that change is both a science (WHAT) as well as an art (HOW).  [...] We will grow with a team that 'gels' and provides the WOW factor for clients in the way we operate."

OK, that was probably not a high point for management consulting. But if that really is the trend (and I have every feeling that it is), what will be left of any discourse? How can we meaningfully communicate if marketing slogans replace normal language while even active listening, reformulating and asking for clarification is considered rude enough to be a sacking offense?

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 01:51:11 PM EST
There are two reasons people hire consultants:

  1. They need help making a decisions or developing a strategy, plan or framework.

  2. Their management has decided up on a decision or developed a strategy, plan or framework, and now need to legitimize it to their internal stakeholders.

If what you are doing is more a legitimization exercise than a strategy exercise, then your customers are paying you to not question the wisdom of the exercise.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 03:54:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, I know that.

But in that case I did not question a manager, or any legitimacy. And it was not the company hiring the consultant that terminated the contract -it was the consulting company that had hired me as an associate consultant (I am freelance).

It seems that they view their role as some kind of equivalent of massage therapy without the need to take off some clothes.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 04:06:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was never quite sure what the point of that sort of consultancy was, but it appears to be very popular.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 04:12:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cyrille:
It seems that they view their role as some kind of equivalent of massage therapy without the need to take off some clothes.

LOL, at least massage can do some good!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 04:26:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Cyrille:
How can we meaningfully communicate if marketing slogans replace normal language

excellent, probing question!

when i first met my ex-mother-in-law, the first question she asked me was 'can you sell?'

i remember looking at her blankly for a long moment, then saying 'i guess it depends what'.

her look turned immediately to one of pitying scorn, it was obvious to her that i would be a Big Fail in today's world, seeing by how far i had missed the main point of existence, by her value system.

this whole neolib takeover macro-mirrors what happens to each individual involved in spreading it, the first step is removing any unproductive vestige of scruple or conscience, so to streamline oneself into the purely aquisitionary state of mind necessary to be a corporate tool.

newspeak is the method with which they ensure earnest compliance, shorn of any friction due to curiosity or god forbid, personal responsibility, or sin of sins, critical thinking. how dare you pop the bubble?

this mentality completely blocks the brain from growing healthily, and leads to infantilisation of adults, two great examples staring at us in recent days are the suit from the fracking company that insisted terms of agreement included that the 7 and 9 year old children in the family never mention fracking for the rest of their lives.

the other one was how anyone working for the USA government was forbidden to read about snowden on the internet.

newspeak seems like it's just redefinition of words, but it's much much more than that in reality. it's a direct invitation to abrogate your personal sovereignty, and worse, to consciously choose to collude in the atrophisation of what underpins our very deepest survival knowledge, our nose for what's bullshit, and what's real, it's an auto-cauterisation of the most vital of our cerebral functions, a self-immolation of the most dastardly sort, and if your vocabulary allows it, a selling of your soul.

faustian pact.... you learn to lie to yourself, and sweep that very fact under the rug of denial, so you yourself believe the lies of commission or omission that entails. that is in effect a totalitarian, blanket coup d'etat on your most precious possession, your intuition. no smidgeon of doubt must creep in to divide your loyalty to the illusion crafted to take reality's place, just as with organised religion, to doubt or question is judged as arrogance and apostasy, who are you to question the Great On High, you lowly worm?

newspeak is the portal to amorality, a kind of consensus insanity...

good diary, meta, but right on point, nice (in its original meaning) thinking, Cyrille. looks like your BS meter kicked in to save your integrity, your immune system was working to keep you clean and freethinking.

whew, another bullet dodged! if you dig a little, this BS is always paranoia-based.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 06:33:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Now the only problem that remains for Cyrille is finding new clients. I understand your problem in this regard. I could have made more money and worked longer had I been able to better suppress my scruples. It is a delicate art - being able to act like a total idiot while avoiding appearing as such. I fear I never adequately mastered that art.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Aug 8th, 2013 at 09:50:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
what they want to see from you is servility. i just got fired from a job which could have been a smooth flow for all concerned, but the suggestion that we were equals in a project of mutual benefit was systematically forced out of the relationship because i did not enable their sense of superiority by flunky-ing enough.

of all the social um, arts, obsequiousness will get you furthest.

i just hate pettiness, and these folks gloried in it.

my bad...

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Aug 9th, 2013 at 11:42:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
European Tribune - Today in Newspeak
"A damaged economy cannot afford to allocate such a large share of limited resources to housebuilding."

My first impression would be that the economy is compared to something that can quite literally be damaged, but still work partially, like an engine. So it is an engine that produces money (or GDP), but now it is sputtering and not as much money is coming out. So this limited flow is not enough to pay for houses.

Reminds me of the Grotte mill, that according to ancient Scandinavian mythology could mill forth anything (in particular gold) but was so heavy that only giants could work it. (It all ends badly.)

The engine analogy has similar properties to the household analogy, but I think it can easier be remodelled into something useful. Since the economy is damaged it needs repairing. For example, to repair the economy we need to get people working, and what better way then to build homes that is sorely needed?

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Thu Aug 8th, 2013 at 04:51:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
is there even room for a million houses in the UK?

And, where will this stop?  When the island is wall to wall houses?  

by stevesim on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 06:28:25 PM EST
it's because they suppressed the Travellers, now there aren't enough houses.

duh...

i like this

 

h/t uncut

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 07:53:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
At 100 square meters each they'd fit in some 100 square kilometers. The UK has about 243,610 km2, I reckon there still space enough.

res humą m'és alič
by Antoni Jaume on Fri Aug 9th, 2013 at 05:25:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
(1) Residence House
(2) Money
Resource

Seems like the principle damage is the theology of deficit hysteria. The consequence is to ensure that substantial amounts of real productive resources ~ both human and equipment ~ are unemployed and hence quite readily available to be put to work for any identified substantial social need.

Though one might question whether that need involves "houses" or "residences". "Houses" sounds like separate single family houses, likely placed in some relatively car dependent suburb, which would be something that many Western countries requires fewer of rather than more of.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 06:50:52 PM EST
(1) Residence ≠ House
(2) Money ≠ Resource

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Aug 7th, 2013 at 06:52:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I thought that would be detached house.
I'm sure I've heard people use "house" for flats.

Anyway, it's clear that the need is in terms of residence, not houses.
And it's not just money that is idle (though that too). Indeed, money is no problem at all for the economy as a whole, it's just a tool.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. Gandhi

by Cyrille (cyrillev domain yahoo.fr) on Thu Aug 8th, 2013 at 03:53:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
House is often used where I believe colonials would use "home". It can encompass flats/apartments and so on, depending on context. In this context it means all the places people might live.
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Thu Aug 8th, 2013 at 04:19:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"Home", also often referred to by the term 'household'. Of course both your home and your household can be under a bridge.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Aug 8th, 2013 at 09:53:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Under that connotation, the question "s there even room for a million houses in the UK?" makes no sense. Simply converting a detached residence from single occupancy to dual occupancy would double the number of "houses" with no change in the amount of room taken.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Aug 9th, 2013 at 12:34:27 PM EST
[ Parent ]
"And it's not just money that is idle"

I only mentioned resources as being idle, not money. It should be beside the point whether money is "idle" or not: if it isn't beside the point, the monetary system is broken by design.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Aug 9th, 2013 at 12:31:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...the monetary system is broken by design.

To disguise that fact great effort has gone into 'educating' the public so that they understand that the present system is 'natural' and that all of the alternatives are horrible and un-(whichever country of which you are a citizen.)

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Aug 9th, 2013 at 01:03:15 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Lots of good responses so far, but I see a different disease at work here.

I'd be happy to bet that the pathology behind this is that "it is all about exports" and "paying our way as a country."

This is one of the great neoliberal tricks. "Money" must be "earned." How can a country "earn money." It "earns" through exports. Thus, every piece of internal spending must be earned by exporting something...

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Aug 12th, 2013 at 10:25:40 AM EST
About two years ago, I had a maddening discussion with a yuppie in a startup company who insisted that hairdressers and pizza restaurants aren't productive parts of the economy. He laboured under the everything for exports delusion, too. (And he was a Fidesz voter, but started to regret it by then.)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Aug 12th, 2013 at 10:33:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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