The Lack of a Need for Unclear Negative Writing Can Never Be Underestimated

January 4, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Twelve years ago in this blog, I wrote a post with the title, “Accentuate the Positive; Eliminate the Negative.”*  I was borrowing the title of a hit song of the 1940s. The post, unlike the song, was about language and writing, not general philosophical outlook. My point was simply that the more negatives a writer loads into a sentence, the harder it is for readers, and sometimes the writer, to understand the meaning of that sentence.

Those negative words include more than  just no, not, and never. My made-up example was parody of those newspaper summaries of Supreme Court decisions. “The court failed to overturn a lower-court ruling that denied a request to reverse . . .”

Do real writers write like that? Yes, sometimes to the point that they lose track of their multiple negations and write something whose literal meaning is the opposite of what they intended. Here’s economist Noah Smith at Bloomberg a few days ago (here). He was arguing that Texas, if it is to succeed in its effort to become a technology hub, will have to do something about “noncompete” clauses that prevent employees from leaving one firm and taking a job with a competing firm.

Banning noncompetes would be inconsistent with Texas’ principles and reputation as a defender of free markets. Noncompete agreements are restrictions on the free movement of labor; they gum up markets.

 Banning, noncompetes, inconsistent. Smith nails the triple. 

Smith is an economist (and a Texan). He likes free markets and competition. If noncompetes gum up markets, then banning them would free up those markets. So banning them would be consistent with principles of free markets. What he meant was, “Noncompetes are restrictions on the free movement of labor; they gum up markets. Banning them would be consistent with Texas’ principles of free markets.”

*Other examples noted in this blog include a Financial Times piece by someone  “widely considered to be one of the world's most influential writers on economics” (“No, No, a Thousand Times No”) and even the GSS ( “The Power of Positive Phrasing”).

A Cold War Joke and US Healthcare

December 23, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

There was a joke Republicans liked to tell about Soviet Russia back during the Cold War. Republicans then, unlike Republicans now, were highly critical of the Russian government and its leaders. The joke was about an American visitor getting the official tour. He is taken to a factory, where he gets an interview with a worker. The worker proudly tells him how, working at this wonder job in in this state-owned factory, he has saved enough money over the years to be able to buy a car.

“And what are you saving for now?” the American asks.

“A pair of shoes.”
                           *                       *                        *                   *

I was talking to a friend last night. “Emma took a job at UPS,” she said. Emma is her daughter-in-law. “It’s back-breaking work, and she can only do it part time. And you know why she took the job? Because at UPS, even part-time workers get health coverage.” My friend added that her son, Emma’s husband, gets medical benefits that cover only him, not the family. They looked at the available insurance plans, and to get anything decent, it would cost them $1500 a month.

“So,” said my friend, “they’re saving as much as they can so that Emma can quit the UPS job and they can buy health insurance.”

                           *                       *                        *                   *

The Soviet worker didn’t know that in other countries, people don’t have to scrimp and save to buy a pair of shoes. He didn’t realize that his unscripted answer revealed deep flaws in the Soviet system.

My friend’s son and daughter-in-law know what healthcare is like in other countries — many Americans don’t. They know that their predicament reveals deep flaws in our healthcare system. They just can’t do anything about it.

Doctor? My Eye.

December 14, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Madame First Lady — Mrs. Biden — Jill — kiddo: a bit of advice... Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” So begins Joseph Epstein’s WSJ op-ed of this weekend “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.”
Many on the left got upset. They disliked the tone. Smugness has long been a chronic, perhaps unavoidable, flaw among right-wing intellectuals, and Epstein is not as bad as most of them on that score. His opening descent down the ladder of formality of terms of address seems more friendly than condescending. The article is, after all, about what to call the First Lady, and he’s trying out several possibilities.  Even so, he seems to be trying to trigger the libs, and triggered they were.

Some people accused Epstein of sexism. You wouldn’t have done that if it were a man — that sort of thing. Counterfactuals like this are hard to prove, but the critics may be right. Epstein’s main argument against “Dr.” Biden is that this honorific should be reserved for medical doctors (“A wise man once said that no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child.”) Jill Biden has no medical degrees. She as an Ed.D.

However, six years ago, Epstein wrote, “One teacher I do remember fondly was Dr. Branz, a German émigré who taught a course called Commercial Law. He must have been a refugee from Hitler, with a doctor of laws degree...” Yes, Dr. Branz, a law professor. I doubt that this juris doctor had ever moonlighted as an obstetrician.

The WSJ has no objections to using “Dr.” for non-physicians in the White House —  among others, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and of course non-M.D. Henry Kissinger, who insisted on on being called “Dr. Kissinger.” As far as I know, Epstein never gave Rice or Kissinger the same friendly advice he’s offering Jill Biden.                                                         
Why shouldn’t we use the same honorific for advanced degrees both medical and academic? Is it confusing? Or does calling our teachers “doctor” cheapen the value of medical doctors? Epstein implies that it’s both. Equating physicians and professors does not fit with a value system that accords teachers much less prestige than they might have in other cultures.

Once long ago, I taught English for one semester in a high school in a small town (pop. 3000) in Japan. My students addressed me as Jay-sensei, sensei being the Japanese word for teacher. I lived with a Japanese family. One day, I had some stomach problems. My family insisted that I go to the doctor — Kimura-sensei. Hmm, I thought, we call our teachers “doctor”; the Japanese call their doctors “teacher.” A commentary on their values?

Doctor originally referred to theologians,  explainers of doctrine — closer to teachers than to physicians. Dr. Webster explains:
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The word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

The 14th century was the birth of the Renaissance, and lots of teaching and learning was afoot. By the century's end, the word doctor was being applied not just to a select few theologians, but also to qualified and/or accomplished academics and medical practitioners.he word doctor comes from the Latin word for “teacher,” itself from docēre, meaning “to teach.”

I don’t know the history of sensei. Maybe in Japan, as we speak, some Epsteinian curmudgeon is complaining about all these physicians who insist on being called sensei even though they have never taught even one student how to interpret a multiple regression.

Trump's Defense Fund — Fleecing the Rubes

December 7, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

What Trump learned at Trump University was the value of fleecing the rubes. Most of the other victims of his salesmanship had been big-money people and institutions — banks and other supposedly wise investors. The $3000 that Trump U students lost — and some got ripped off for tens of thousands — is serious money for the individual but small potatoes for Trump.

He made it up in volume. The scam grossed at least $40 million.

Now he’s at it again. So far, his Election Defense Fund has raised over $200 million.

I can understand the Trump U victims. They thought that their money would buy them the secrets to real estate success. They would be repaid a hundred fold. But what do the Election Defense Fund contributors get?

First, and most obviously, they think that the money will get them four more years of Trump. This belief requires a prior belief that is axiomatic among Trump loyalists:  believe Trump, not the so-called experts.

From the start, the consensus among legal scholars was that Trump’s cases would not win. As one lawyer I heard on (I think) NPR said, “His chances are slim and none, and silm just left town.” But if Trump and his lawyers say that they have a ton of evidence of massive fraud, it must be true, and these other voices must be fake legal opinion.

It has now become clear that the experts were correct. Trump has lost one legal challenge after another. So much losing. But still the donations roll in.

For Trump, of course, everything is, to use the current term, “transactional.” The fine print on the Election Fund website says that for donations of less that $5000, nothing will go to the legal fight.  Instead, 25% will go to the Republican National Committee, and 75% to “Save America,” a Trump PAC. There are restrictions on what Trump can do with that money. For instance, the rule say that he can’t use it to pay off his campaign debts and certainly not his personal debts.

But, as Brendan Fischer, Federal Reform Program director at the Campaign Legal Center, said, "Although Trump cannot use campaign funds to pay himself or his family members excessive salaries, or to buy enough copies of Don Jr.'s book to land it on the bestseller list, he might try to use leadership PAC funds for such purposes.”

Remember, we’re talking about Donald Trump. If nobody can or will effectively enforce the rules, the rules don’t matter. Even if the rules are enforced, breaking them might have been worth it. After all, Trump U was fined $25 million, probably less than half of what it brought in. And in the end it wasn’t Trump who paid the judgment. It was some billionaire supporter. 

Even if Trump did use the money for whatever he wanted, including paying of personal debts, he probably wouldn't lose much support. For his followers, a donation is not transactional. The rewards it brings are intangible: it strengthens their identity as members of the group; and it reaffirms the value of that group. Those functions are especially important for those who perceive their group as being under attack. And Trump supporters, correctly or incorrectly (mostly incorrectly) see themselves as being discriminated against because of their race (White), their religion (Christian), and their views on gender roles (“traditional”). Trump embodies their ideas, and he perfectly and loudly expresses their resentments against those who are supposedly discriminating against them. You can’t put a price on that.