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Online Community Lesson
Has George Orwell Left the Grave?
In high school in the early Seventies, we read George Orwell’s 1984, in which a socialist England controlled people’s lives, even manipulating language so as to exert control.
I recall that, when the year 1984 did come around, it was noted that Orwell’s vision had not come to pass. But I think that we have resurrected Orwell in the meantime.
Some of us would look at how elected officials redefine words or how “spin doctors” reinterpret events. The battle between the present Administration and Congress is an example. Our calling Al-Qaeda the devil’s spawn and their hurling the epithet back at us is another example. But it is not just in politics that language is manipulated.
Our definition of words used in economics is an example of the effect of language on our view of the world. (That is where the concern lies: manipulated language means we see the world through tinted—if not tainted—glasses. See the essay “How Little We Know” in this newsletter.) Let us take a word as seemingly innocuous as “costs”. That is the amount deducted from income in order to calculate profit.
So, what are “costs”? This becomes quite interesting. There are recurring, predictable costs, like utilities, wages, taxes, and contributions for worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance. And there are occasional, unpredictable costs which normally are not within the definition of cost. Let us call these latter costs “external” costs, also known as “hidden” costs.
Examples of occasional, unpredictable costs:
· identity theft; if you have gone through this, you lose time and money re-establishing credit, and your health may deteriorate; yet, if the thief is caught, you are not reimbursed for your loss of time, money, and health; (see the article “Who’s Guarding Your Data in the Cybervault?”, USA Today, April 3, 2007);
· when the power went out in Montebello on March 27, much business was lost, many people stopped at blinking red lights while others drove to a shut-down business and returned home, students did not have computers; for the hours that the power was down, what was the cost to Montebello residents, students, businesses, and local government, not to mention the environmental cost?
· the incidence of pulmonary maladies, like asthma, among children and adults caused by gases and particles emitted by vehicles and factories; it is true that the incidence is increasing, but the cost of these maladies has not been figured into the price of the fossil fuels contribute to the maladies.
The upshot of our “Orwellian” definition of a word like “costs” is that the public pays the bill for costs which others should pay. Has anybody calculated how much of his or her costs should actually be paid by somebody else?
If you answer the multiple-choice questions below and e-mail to email@example.com with “Lesson answers” in the subject field, you will be credited toward a “certificate of recognition in community affairs” to be awarded in 2007 by a local nonprofit organization.
1. How we look at the world
(a) is independent of how we use language.
(b) is closely tied to how we define words.
2. If we took external costs into consideration,
(a) polluting fuels and vehicles would cost their owners more.
(b) a utility would pay those affected by the failure of its service.
(c) those convicted of crimes would be obliged to reimburse, even if it took them the rest of their lives.
April 5, 2007
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