A phrasebook for translating Washington into English

Here’s a helpful guide for American’s reading the latest news from Washington, provide by Lewis Lapham in his book Lights, Camera, Democracy! (2001) — a book I strongly recommend every American read.  Although written many years ago, it’s still current because nothing significant has changed.

These things are important to understand.  As accurate diagnosis must precede a cure, understanding must preceed action.

Excerpt from Chapter 3 — A Washington Phrase Book

The oldest, wisest politician grows not more human so, but is merely a gray wharf rat at last.
— Henry David Thoreau

Last year’s presidential campaign raised the hope of moving the national government in some sort of new direction, and if none of the candidates could fix the precise compass bearing, at least they were sure that it pointed away from politics as usual, away from the mindless extravagance of a feckless and spendthrift Congress. The motion was approved and seconded by the public-opinion polls (almost all of which indicated profound disgust with the status quo in Washington), but apparently it was meant to be seen and not heard.

As I listened to this summer’s debate about President Clinton’s budget — its virtue and presumed benevolence, its theory of deficit reduction, its taking from the rich and giving to the poor — I wondered what had become of all the navigational charts and maps. The election had come and gone, and the new direction was the old direction. Here were the same feckless and spendthrift politicians, not yet 6 months in office, demanding even more money (approximately $241 billion in additional tax revenues) in return for the same dubious promises to restrain their expenditures over the next 5 years by the sum of $255 billion.

Their specious accounting was as familiar as their smiling sophism, and although I could admire their gall, I found it hard to imagine the audience that they had in mind. Were they talking only to themselves, or did they seriously believe that the American people were likely to grant them immunity from the laws of cause and effect? Maybe they thought that the language spoken in Washington was so heavily encrusted with euphemism that it defied translation into the vulgar dialects spoken elsewhere in the country.

The latter supposition prompted me to make occasional notes on the speeches in progress during the months of June and July, and by August 6, the day that Congress ratified the president’s budget (by a margin of one vote in both the Senate and the House of Representatives), I had worked out the meanings of a few of the principal words and phrases. On the assumption that the government will continue to find itself hard-pressed for money, I offer the definitions as program notes for what is likely to become a continuous performance of the Washington vaudeville revue variously entitled Directions Lost or Promises Deterred. As follows:

TAX AND SPEND: What all elected politicians do for a living. An occupation, like nursing or carpentry, not an ideological program.

BUDGET PROJECTIONS: Federal arts projects, in which the numbers express the authors’ indifference to money as well as their contempt for the bourgeois taxpayers who supply them with funds. In October 1990, President Bush also promised a $500 billion deficit reduction over 5 years in return for a tax increase. Even as soon as 1991, he said, the deficit would dwindle to the modest sum of $63.1 billion. Six months later, after receiving the favor of a higher tax rate, the government reported the 1991 deficit at $318.1 billion, and by the end of 1991 the sum had been raised to $384.6 billion — an error of $321.5 billion over the span of a single year’s accounting.

THE OUT YEARS: The imaginary moment in time, invariably after the next presidential election, when the government reduces its expenditures and pays its debts. The most reliable authorities fix the happy day at a distance of 4 or 5 years in the future, and then only if the Congress still remembers that it was once moved by a vision of monastic simplicity. As distinct from the spending cuts that occur in the out years, the higher tax rates take place in the world of historical event, retroactive to January 1, 1993.

SACRIFICE: Various forms of financial discipline applicable to the American people as a whole, not to the political hierarchies in Washington. Although the exercises are best performed by “the wealthy,” they also can be practiced by “the middle class.” The members of Congress often wish that they, too, could make sacrifices, but the burden of keeping up the appearances of good government obliges them to forgo the domestic pleasures available to ordinary citizens. The Congress in 1992 allocated $2.7 billion to the cost of its own privileges and comforts. The comparable sum in 1970 amounted to $353 million; in 1980, to $1.2 billion. No other form of public expenditure has expanded at so grandiose a rate. Over the course of the last 20 years, Congress has increased the spending on itself by 705% — more than twice the 280% rise in inflation or the 311% rise in the defense budget. …

GUT-WRENCHING DECISION: Newspaper term for a Democratic politician’s choice between 2 categories of self-interest. Which course of action most harms his or her chances of reelection — a vote that risks the anger of the electorate or a vote that prompts reprisals from the White House?

SOUND FINANCE: Lesson taught by precept rather than by example. Any American citizen who modeled his or her financial dealings on those of the American government would be declared bankrupt or be convicted of fraud.

ECONOMIC THEORIES: Acquired for reasons of convenience or fashion, as if they were hats or scarves. Different theories come into vogue with different seasons or administrations (high taxes or low taxes, deficit spending or fiscal restraint, Great Society or New World Order), and any or all of them can justify the demand for more money, more grandeur, more marble. Nobody in Congress needs to know what the words mean. What is important is that the money continues to arrive in Washington, more or less on schedule and in amounts sufficient to fund the deliberations about the meaning of justice and the rights of the unborn.

CONGRESSIONAL DEBATE: Ritual performances meant to sustain the belief in democracy. Like the church, the government derives its income from the tithes imposed on the faithful, and in a democracy the faithful require the proofs of principled disagreement and plain argument. All present on Capitol Hill share the same urgent need for money, but in order to obtain it they must make a successful show of their differences of opinion, belaboring one another with the props and catchphrases of political truism. When necessary, they exchange parts and reverse their theories of the public good. Championing President Bush’s $500 billion deficit reduction in the autumn of 1990, Senator Bob Dole of Kansas employed the same arguments that he would condemn as ruinous folly when they were presented by President Clinton, almost word for word, in the summer of 1993. …

A question you might ask at this point…

Where do I stand on the great questions of American politics?  Where do I stand on the American’s political spectrum?  For the answers see Politics of the FM site: radical leftist reformer or right-wing iconoclast?

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the following:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Some posts about American politics:

  1. The USA *after* this financial crisis – part I, about politics, 13 October 2008
  2. What happens to the Republican Party after the election?, 2 November 2008
  3. Migration from the south into America: new people, new foods, new political systems, 4 November 2008
  4. America’s elites reluctantly impose a client-patron system, 5 November 2008
  5. Immigration as a reverse election: our leaders get a new people, 6 November 2008
  6. R.I.P., G.O.P. – a well-deserved end, 7 November 2008
  7. America gets ready for new leadership (or is it back to the future?), 14 November 2008
  8. Conservative reflections about America – starting to use their time in the wilderness to think, 15 November 2008
  9. Lilliput or America – who has a better way to choose its leaders?, 19 November 2008
  10. Conservatives should look back before attempting to move forward, 5 December 2008
  11. The Democrats believe we are stupid. Are they correct?, 19 December 2008
  12. Are the new “tea party” protests a grass roots rebellion or agitprop?, 1 March 2009
  13. About campaigns for high office in America – we always expect a better result from the same process, 17 June 2009
  14. Please read this. For the sake of yourself, your children, and their children, 25 June 2009
  15. More about the tottering structure of the American political regime, 17 August 2009


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

2 thoughts on “A phrasebook for translating Washington into English”

  1. Except the strange thing is, thanks to a combination of reasonable restraint on the democrats part to avoid large tax cuts, republican intransigence on spending, and a .com bubble to inflate revenues, the Clinton years DID see a huge improvement in the US budgetary situation, and even managed to reduce the debt as a fraction of GDP by a significant amount:

    (Wikipedia, US debt graph) The tune WAS different for Clinton.
    FM reply: No. Not in any meaningful sense.
    * Clinton had the good fortune to be in office during a boom, producing a purely cyclical improvement in the deficit during 1998-2000 (including the stock market bubble).
    * Clinton fecklessly sold off much of the Naval oil reserves in 1997, with oil aprox $20/barrel (including the Elk Hills field, at which the new owner since found even more oil in 2009)
    * Most important, under real accounting (accrual, not the government’s fraudulent cash accounting) there was no surplus. The increase in liability of the social retirement systems was far larger than the cash surplus. Bad accounting means poor thinking (or vice versa). For more information about this, see…

    * “What’s the real federal deficit?“, USA Today, 4 August 2006
    * The most important story in this week’s newspapers, 22 May 2008

  2. “Giving money and power to politicians is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
    — P.J. O’Rourke (A Parliament of Whores, Vintage Books, 1992.)
    FM reply: The most fascinating aspect of O’Rourke’s wonderful book is that almost nobody gets the point of it. It’s not about our government bureaucrats, whom he treats with respect. It’s not about our feckless politicians. He states the conclusion clearly at the end (bold emphasis added):

    The whole idea of our government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take somethinga and not pay for it. … All though history mankind has been bullied by scum. … The worst off-sloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every governmebnt is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us.

    This is clearly seen in the comments of the FM site. To mention just one of countless examples, Tom Grey’s insistence that the best method of funding the government is borrowing — as taxes should be cut at all times, during both booms and recessions.

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