Monday 5 August 2013

Today in Newspeak

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.

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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