Political Speech and the Nature of Truth

Language is important. It is the medium through which humans engage with the universe, world, society, and each other. Without language, it has been argued, there would be no thought and therefore humanity as we know it would not be possible. The ability to use language is arguably the most important advantage humans have over other animals, and has contributed more directly than any other technology to our evolution and success/rampant rise as a species. Language is so necessary to our survival, in fact, that any person, entity, or agency responsible for using it in order to document events, or share news and information as they happen should be held to a much higher standard than it seems they currently are. This becomes especially important during key moments in the unfolding of history. Like right now.

The 2016 presidential elections are supremely important for many reasons, and because of that importance, the information necessary for voters to make informed decisions must be communicated clearly and without impediment. Unfortunately this year is no different than every other documented year on record since the beginning of human history as far as the manipulation of language goes.

Earlier this week, the Washington Post published an article by Glenn Kessler claiming that Bernie Sanders was wrong in saying that Hillary Clinton called him unqualified to be president. NBC News under the authorship of Chuck Todd went so far as to paint Sanders as a liar. It all started with an interview between Clinton and Joe Scarborough. He asked if Clinton thought Sanders was unqualified, and she responded in a way that clearly implied her answer was yes, but without actually saying yes (emphasis mine).

SCARBOROUGH: But do you think he is qualified? And do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?
CLINTON: Well, let me put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job, both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.

So, what did Clinton say here? Well, knowing that the job of president is to understand and execute laws, and she said that Sanders doesn’t have that understanding, it seems that she said he’s not qualified. For example, if one was told after a job interview to be a chef, that “I think that what you’ve been saying about food isn’t rooted in an understanding on how to get meals made,” it would be clear that the interviewer felt you were unqualified. Being a chef requires an understanding of food in the same way being president requires an understanding of law and the execution of it. Clinton did what party line politicians have always done which is rather than use language to clearly address a question, she used it to protect herself and obfuscate her meaning. Since she never said the word “unqualified” she can claim innocence, when of course it’s clear what she means if it’s given a little thought.

Another note here is that all journalists are trained to understand the difference between saying and meaning. One of the core functions of a journalist is to extract meaning from statements in which it has been obfuscated. Kessler, Scarborough, Todd, and all of the other journalists who jumped on this bandwagon are culpable in the obfuscation of meaning by not calling it out and revealing the meaning behind what Clinton said. Sanders in fact was telling the truth when he claimed in Philedelphia that Clinton said he was unqualified. She did say it, because “saying” is the act of “utter[ing] words so as to convey information, an opinion, a feeling or intention”.

Of course, this kind of obfuscation is not new. This year is the 70th anniversary of one of George Orwell’s most enduring and relevant essays: Politics and the English Language. Within it, he analyzes and deconstructs political writing as a bastardization of language. Unfortunately, what he says is still wildly relevant (which he predicted).

Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It is the job, then, of politicians and their cohorts to allude to truth without revealing it, to imply meaning without implicating themselves, and to obfuscate reality to benefit themselves and their goals. This was true for Orwell in 1946, and it’s true for us in 2016. And just as Orwell felt compelled to comment on the use of languge in his time, we need journalists and analysts now with the courage to comment on its use in ours. The use of language in this way masks truth and suppresses the search for real meaning. However, this pattern of language use can also be used to reveal those who are speaking the truth. Orwell again (emphasis mine):

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech.

In other words, when that person appears among the political class who speaks clearly, who does not adhere to party lines, who is considered unorthodox and perhaps dangerous to the status quo, who is vivid with words and speech, it is a moment in which we should listen. It is a moment to recognize the differences and judge for ourselves whether what this outsider is saying is worthy of merit. This is the core of the process for seeking truth and meaning, and in the failure of the Fourth Estate to assist with this cause, we must do it on our own.

Seventy years following the publication of Orwell’s essay, we are being presented with an example of each of the kinds of political speakers he mentions. The one that adheres to party lines, orthodoxy, and an imitative style; who hides behind words in order to mask meaning. And the other who seems a rebel, but says what people feel is true; a vivid speaker and public figure who uses words to reveal meaning and values truth over political expediency and the language that goes with it.

After New Hampshire

Speech and the freedom to use it as we see fit has been harmed. By criticizing and calling out the conversations themselves rather than discussing the content of them, the ability to have conversation is diminished. By reducing the words available for viable conversation and by diminishing the value of those who use them, we reduce the potential for new thought and honest communication and practice the kind of oppression that this campaign has become about.

Over the last week, there has been a lot of press generated about Bernie Sanders as an outcome of his win in New Hampshire. A good deal of that press has been positive. Which, of course, I really like. But I also don’t mind stand-up critiques of his policies. What I’ve been disturbed about is the kind of meta-conversation that’s been happening that attempts to describe the ways in which Sanders should be discussed or viewed.

“Hey Bernie, here are the issues this presidency is about. Anything else is off-message.” In the latest debate, Clinton worked to paint him as a single-issue candidate, which hearkens back to the message from the main stream media when Sanders first announced, calling him an inexperienced protest candidate. In New Hampshire last week, Rachel Maddow essentially dismissed that view as inaccurate.

Sanders, of course, is not a single-issue candidate. Racism, healthcare, environmental issues, reproductive rights, and human rights all have connective tissue in the idea that oppression is a tool used by the powerful on the disenfranchised. While he has policy ideas in place that address the issues of the day, he also understands that a complex system like our country is not just a list of single-focus-issues. Sanders understands that and is trying to help us understand it. In turn, we are reaching out to share his message.

As we do so, Sanders’ voice becomes larger and more expansive, and as that happens, we are being instructed on how to share the message.

“Hey, women, supporting Bernie is a betrayal to your gender.”

“Hey, men, you’re a sexist asshole if you support Bernie.”

“Hey, whites, by talking to black folks about why he’s a good candidate, you’re being racist.”

While most of the above examples have been redacted or spun back, or the utterers of them have apologized in the last week or so, the damage is done. Speech and the freedom to use it as we see fit has been harmed. By criticizing and calling out the conversations themselves rather than discussing the content of them, the ability to have conversation is diminished. By reducing the words available for viable conversation and by diminishing the value of those who use them, we reduce the potential for new thought and honest communication and practice the kind of oppression that his campaign is against.

No, this campaign season is not about a single issue, nor is Sanders a single-issue candidate, but this campaign season is necessarily aware of the vast inequities in this country and the power that this gives certain groups over others. The over-arching narrative of 2016 is going to be about  whether we finally begin to recognize the interconnectedness of everything that plagues the oppressed and marginalized people of the United States or continue to view the world through a myopic lens and reach for solving one symptom at a time without really understanding its impact or source.



More than charity is needed to fix hunger

During our second year of marriage in 1997, my wife and I were often hungry. We lived in a one-room apartment in the back of a garage in the middle of nowhere. We had no money. Our car was reposessed in the winter. Just before that, I lost a job doing in-home teaching because we didn’t have gas money. I was working about 25 hours a week at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, and we were relying on our local food shelf to provide us with the bulk of our meals. Any money we did have went towards what bills we could pay, but more often towards some quick-fix happiness like fast food or books or music: anything to distract us from our seemingly interminable reality. We didn’t know any drug dealers, or we might have spent money on that.

We survived that 18 months or so without ever becoming truly homeless, though I think we still owe some rent. We were lost and confused. Cold even in the summer. Abandoned by the world. Angry, depressed, and scared. We did live clean, and we did work hard, but all of that would have been for nought if we hadn’t been lucky enough to live in Vermont, and have family close by who could provide shelter and food when we needed it.

We did not have a Thanksgiving meal that year. I think we ate bearclaws or something from Dunkin’. But the thing is, we were also unable to have supper the night before or the night after. We ate what was available at the food shelf or the day-old pastries I brought home from work. The only reason we remember our absense of food on that particular Thursday in that particular November was because it was a holiday. In truth, it was no different for us than any other day that week. Had we been the recipients of a food basket or something on that day, it would have made us happy, but it would not have solved our problem. Charity is not enough to solve the problem of hunger.

During the holidays, we all become especially sensitive to the needs of others. We focus more deeply — if for an infintesimally brief amount of time — on the homeless, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor. We give money at our local grocery stores or buy the gift bags in $10 increments. Celebrities drive truckloads of food to their old stomping grounds. Some of us might volunteer at homeless shelters, food shelves, or work with the local Kiwanis putting together food baskets. Whatever the activity, we do it because it feels good, because it provides a moment of happiness in somebody’s life, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because it becomes more clear during our own moments of abundance that there are far too many people who go without.

According to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million people in the United States lived in food insecure households. That number includes 15.3 million children. If you’re keeping track of the math, that means that 14% of Americans can’t guarantee that they or their family can eat today, and a third of those affected are children. Shockingly, this number is higher than it was a decade ago, according to the USDA.

Also according to the USDA, 31% of post-harvest food went uneaten in 2010. And just two years ago, the United States ranked second worst regarding child poverty in a survey of 35 of developed nations. Meanwhile, the international statistics for hunger and poverty are increasing. Food development and nutrition are improving on a global scale. In spite of this good news, however, there are many countries where hunger is getting worse, and the United States seems to be one of them.

Clearly, there is a problem with hunger in the United States. Even if you don’t want to look at the numbers, logic should make it clear: charity continues to be needed in spite of it having been tackling hunger for decades. The truth is that charity continues to be needed because hunger is not something we can solve by giving people food. Hunger is a systemic, symptomatic issue of a more deeply entrenched problem. People don’t need to be given food. People need to be given the means to access food. The same methods that are used in developing nations that allow people to conquer hunger should also be used here. We don’t do it, though, because we are blind to the problem, and we believe that hard work and persistence can solve any problem.

This is not about self-sufficiency or lack of a work ethic. I think we’ve reached the point in history where we can begin to say that hard work does not guarantee success. Someone working two minimum wage jobs for a total of 50 hours a week does not lack a work ethic. Let’s be honest, here. In our current system, success is only possible for those born into a position where it can be achieved. My wife and I are examples of this. In reality, luck, geography, and salary play far larger roles in our success than hard work does, and the same goes for access to food.

The cost, availability, and quality of food is based entirely on where one lives in the United States. In Mississippi, the food insecurity rate is 22%. Two-tenths of the population of Mississippi isn’t sure where their next meal is going to come from. Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Maine, Oregon, and Kansas round out the list of the 14 states that are more food insecure than the national average. Additionally, there is absolutely no county in the U.S. where the minimum wage is the same or greater than a required living wage. Just last month, the average cost of food for a family of four was approximately $1,070.00 (USDA). That’s about two weeks worth of work for someone being paid an average of $9 – $10 an hour. Once you start factoring in housing, transportation, health insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment, the struggle becomes clear: food is expensive.

Access to food for most people in the United States is dependent on being able to afford it. We have long since stopped being an agrarian society, and most Americans depend on some means of distribution for their food, and that’s where the problem is. If there is so much food that 31% of it is being thrown out, but there are still people in the country who are hungry, then there are at least two ways of fixing the problem. First, minimum wage must be fixed to a rising cost of living. If a family of four needs $22 an hour to live, then that family has to earn $22 an hour. As the cost of living increases, the wages should increase. If the cost of living goes down, wages should stay static. Second, we need broader access to food beyond what top-down economics or charity can provide. I believe we have to focus on this in order to create long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

We must begin looking at ways of ensuring people will always have food. We should support and nurture neighborhood gardens and co-ops. We should allow people to grow food and have a few animals in the suburbs. Some communities have enacted local currencies and barter systems. We need to de-industrialize farming and be more diverse with the crops we grow. We need to spend money on infrastructure and moving towards more sustainable transportation methods, the costs of food distribution will go down. We need to bring food selling back to the centers of communities and away from the big box stores. We need to get violence out of our communities. And while we do this, we need to continue to be charitable.

Food is not a commodity. It is a necessity. Perhaps the most necessary one. If we can work with other countries to help devise systems of food growth and management, then surely we can do the same here. Access to food should no longer be dependent on whether someone was lucky enough to be born in a particular location at a certain time. Access to food should be an implicit right of being born, period.

What I’m saying is that during this holiday season — this one right now — let’s stop thinking about just giving $1, $5, or $10 at the grocery store and start thinking about what we can change to ensure that those donations are no longer necessary. Again, this is not about people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps, or self-sufficiency, or spending more on social safety nets. This is about changing the very nature of a system that causes the problem so that bootstraps and safety nets become obsolete and nobody will need to live hungry again.

Thinking my way through a carbon tax

A few months ago, I posted here about sustainability. That is, the economic and environmental idea that one should attempt to maintain a level of living without relying on growth metrics. Sustainability is a key metric in understanding whether a socio-economic or environmental decision is likely to lead society to ruin, or give it a chance to breathe a little longer. Humans are in a position where we need to begin taking very seriously the signals we are receiving from nature and act accordingly. I think that the recent drive by Energy Independent Vermont towards a statewide carbon tax is a result of them taking the signals seriously. That’s the right thing for them to do, and I agree with their intent. The question I’m left with is whether it’s the right place to start.

What I’m concerned about is whether the carbon tax system being worked out in the state is the right way to go about moving Vermont towards a more sustainable relationship with fuel and energy. Certainly, I believe that something has to be done. According to Limits to Growth, published in 2004, economically viable oil and natural gas reserves will be mostly depleted by the middle of this century. Even if you happen to be a climate change denier (which you really shouldn’t be), reserves of fossil fuels are what they are. Somewhere between 35 and 50 years from now, we could be looking at a situation where there is a real shortage of oil as opposed to one driven by economic politics. When that happens, we are going to need to be ready to transition to some kind of alternative.

To me, there are two categories of energy needs we will need to account for. The first is for buildings. The second is for travel. For buildings, we need to supply the means to heat and cool them, which is fairly straightforward. It also happens to be where most of our energy goes: generally speaking, buildings use more energy than vehicles because of the constant regulation of temperature. For vehicles, we need to find a way to make them run without incurring an insurmountable expense to their operators and without relying on fossil fuels. I want to look at buildings first, because it’s the most straightforward.

There are industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Each are perhaps constructed differently, but all need to be able to regulate the environment within them to make sure the people who are inside are safe and happy. This requires energy. For these buildings, there need to be efforts to make them energy efficient and eliminate fossil fuels from their heating and cooling methods. There are currently incentives in place for the energy efficiency, but with a two-year waitlist for homes, more needs to be done. As far as the elimination of fossil fuels, the only two reliable alternatives at this point (for Vermont) are electric heating/cooling systems or wood-based heat (either pellets or cord wood). From a carbon perspective, electrical systems powered by renewably-generated electricity would be the best: no carbon released into the air at the building, and fossil fuels are not required for the generation or maintenance of electricity. Pellets and cord wood are probably going to be more common in homes until weatherization can be completed. So for buildings, we have a path of migration away from fossil fuels and towards relatively sustainable alternatives. Vehicles are a little more difficult.

In order to make the shift away from something, there has to be something available to shift towards. In the case of vehicles, the only currently practical option for commuters in rural communities would be electric vehicles: either personal or mass transportation. Electric vehicles are getting better, but their range leaves much to be desired. If the only affordable model gets around 80 miles per charge, then rural communities need to look at methods by which the charge can be maintained. The range of electric vehicles will improve over time, but it may not be until we are already out of fossil fuels. Right now, however, shifting to an electric vehicle might be sustainable from an environmental perspective, but not from a personal economic one. The good ones are expensive, though the relative price — related to gasoline-powered vehicles — is going down. Still, in the near term, the entrance cost of an electric vehicle is larger than the perceived benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels, and my in fact be prohibitive to certain demographics.

Remember, the goal is to not only find away to migrate away from fossil fuels, but to do so in a proactive way that is socio-economically sustainable as well as environmentally sound. Certainly, a statewide tax on the consumption of fossil fuels will create a market-based incentive to shift away from them, but only in the structure segment is there something viable to shift towards. In terms of travel and farming and logging and landscaping, the carbon tax simply increases the cost of doing business and makes things more difficult for homeowners, commuters, and those who rely on fossil fuels for work. Yes, there is a money back component, but there is such a delay between the carbon tax cost and the refund that it doesn’t help in the day-to-day, and if a balance isn’t found it could lead to the collapse of a home, a farm, or even a rural community. Granted, that is likely to happen when fossil fuels are depleted anyhow.

While this is all just a thought exercise, I believe that there is a gap between the carbon tax and the shift away from fossil fuels that needs to be looked at. Market-based economic incentives work because there are alternatives already on the market place. In the case of fossil fuels, the alternatives are not mature enough to be equivalent and are likely to cause near-term sustainability problems as consumers work to incorporate higher cost travel and maintenance figures into their living budgets. Additionally, people who have chosen to live remotely in more rural areas may be beyond the range of the available vehicles.

Possible remedies to this include the following:

  1. Ensure people have access to public transportation options that fit their employment needs and are cost-effective: provide funding for mass transit (rail, bus) on regular schedules to and from major employment centers
  2. Ensure the costs of more carbon-friendly vehicles/transport options are not prohibitive: tax breaks, refunds, deductions for purchasing vehicles; statutory pricing models; subsidized trade-in deals;
  3. Provide additional kick-backs or wage increases (above just income-based) to people whose employment relies on fuel and who have no other option (loggers, truck drivers, rural commuters, etc)
  4. Invest in infrastructure (fiber optic, roads, bridges) and economic incentives to ensure that there are jobs were people live; companies who allow people to work from home get more back from the carbon tax, perhaps; free Internet access for all VT citizens; remote office centers for larger employers (the state, insurance companies, etc)

Whatever we end up doing, we have to find a way to transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources for our buildings and our travel needs. It’s just a necessity at this point and there’s no arguing it. The method we choose to attempt that transition is what will make this successful or not, what will allow us to be ahead of the fossil depletion or fall victim to it. What we choose for a method should be able to meet our needs for the next decade, but also still be viable through the next 30 years.

System thinking series: What is sustainability?

I had an encounter on Twitter the other day that woke me up to my use of words in conversation that some would consider jargon. I’m new to doing the tweets, and the 140 character limit strangles me somewhat. In this case, he was talking about the austerity in Greece. I commented that his solution for the problem in Greece — e.g. trickle-down economics spawned through tax breaks to lure the wealthy back to the country — was not sustainable. I talked about economic cycles and I talked about feedback loops and oscillations and he called me a clown, essentially, and muted me.

While I feel very strongly that my opinion of his solution is correct, I do feel kind of bad that I got jargony with him without ever taking the chance to explain what I meant by “sustainable,” and “feedback loops,” and “oscillations.” So, to rectify that, I’m going to take a few chunks of vertical pixel space to define these terms as I use them, because — let’s face it — I’m going to use them again.

To that end, today’s entry will be about sustainability.


It’s a simple word, to be honest, for which most people understand the meaning, but it’s the way in which it is used in reference to economics when it becomes new or unfamiliar. It does not show up in the lexicon of typical economic discussions regarding minimum wage, inflation, free-market, etc. Where it does show up is when systems-thinkers talk about the economy. Systems-thinking gives a perspective that takes into account not just cause and effect to, but that looks at causal loops, accounts for mitigating issues, and models a system to try and determine where to best apply a solution — e.g. find “Leverage” — that has the best possible outcome.

This definition of a sustainable society is the one I’m thinking of when I speak of sustainability: “A sustainable society is one that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'” (2012, Meadows). In other words, if a decision we make about the economy compromises future generations’ needs, it’s not a sustainable decision. If building more factories requires more resources that will deplete those same resources for the future, should we build? If drilling for oil in the arctic could further deplete oil reserves and cause pollution, should we drill?

System thinking says that the questions of whether to build or whether to drill are not adequately answered by looking at immediate needs, but by looking at the impact of the decisions on the future. This is the idea that you think seven generations ahead when you make decisions like this. In this way, economics from a systems perspective looks different than from a more standard perspective.

Most pointedly, standard economics systems all deal with a central issue of prosperity. Either prosperity for the individual, or prosperity for the state. Prosperity is either achieved through unlimited growth and earnings potential (capitalism, et al) or security of needs provided by the state (communism et al). None of those systems asks the necessary questions about what will happen in the future. If we spend resources now on a quest for unlimited growth and earnings, what will be left in 100 years, 200 years? If we spend resources now to ensure all members of society are taken care of now, will we have enough to take care of future members of society? These are questions about sustainability.

In 2002, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers revisited their 1972 book Limits to Growth to see if any progress had been made. The results were, as you may have guessed, disappointing. However, in the penultimate chapter, the authors present a scenario that they ran through their computer model (WORLD3) that achieves sustainability. What it calls for will not be easy to come by.

The scenario requires an effort to curb population growth through birth control and greater equality in rights among men and women of all nations, an increase in land yield, and the protection of agricultural land from industrialization and over-farming. This scenario caps the world population at a steady 8 billion with sustainability achieved on or about the year 2020.

2002, Meadows et al. Output of a chart generated by the WORLD3 computer model showing sustainability achieved by the year 2020.

While this was encouraging news in 2002, we have probably already missed our deadline and now must work hard to achieve an economic plan that we can maintain in perpetuity, one that will leave resources available for future generations while also meeting our current humanitarian needs in this generation.

On a global scale, we must adopt a way of thinking that leaves behind the need for growth, competition, and unlimited prosperity and replace that thinking with ideas that lead to sustainability, equitability, and stability.



  1. Meadows, Donella H. (2012). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. The Long Now Foundation (http://longnow.org)
  3. The Next Systems Project (http://thenextsystem.org)
  4. Donella Meadows Institute (http://www.donellameadows.org)