The California roots of Obama calling government spending ‘investments’

by CalWatchdog Staff | October 4, 2012 6:49 am

Oct. 4, 2012

By Chris Reed

Last night, when President Obama repeatedly described government spending as “investments,” no one batted an eyelash. This is how Democrats now talk. But few are aware of the California roots of this linguistic gambit.

Flash back to a decade ago. Not many remember this now, but back in the early 2000s, Republicans’ success in national politics led many Democrats to believe there had to be some other reason for their failure than their policies. One academic ended up convincing them that much of their problem was language and marketing.

It was UC Berkeley’s George Lakoff. Four years ago, on my late, lamented America’s Finest Blog[1], I noted how Lakoff had tried to sell his theories to California Democrats. But his first apostle was an L.A. Times reporter. Strange but true!

Here’s some of what I wrote on Oct. 21, 2008[2]:

A few years ago, the theories of George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley linguist, were all the rage. He argued that Democrats were then in the doldrums because they were inept at framing issues.

One of his main suggestions: Dems should describe government spending as an “investment” and spending decisions as choices on where to “invest.”

This is a joke, of course, a severe and misleading twist on the traditional meaning of invest and investment. Salaries and benefits paid to government employees are not “investments.” Transfer payments to poor people are not “investments.”

Given the fact that experts say there’s no correlation between school spending and student performance, it’s also absurd to call education spending an “investment.” But all’s fair in politics, so it made sense for Dems to use this “frame” to make their case.

But why would journalists — unless they also had an agenda designed to change the way voters thought about government spending? Which brings us Los Angeles Times’ Sacramento-bureau reporter Evan Halper. Look at the shameless way he employs Lakoff’s “framing” technique in his ostensibly straight news reporting:

September 21, 2008: Come winter, emergency cuts will probably be needed. Proposals to invest in — or merely maintain — the state’s roads, schools and healthcare facilities will be put on the shelf again.

August 16, 2008: Some needs of government are unpredictable, and placing strict formulas on how the state spends its money could ultimately squeeze schools, healthcare services, the prison system and other government programs that polls suggest voters want the state to invest in.

August 16, 2008: Assembly Budget Committee Vice Chairman Roger Niello … defended the GOP formula, saying it allows for enough spending growth to steadily increase investments in education and healthcare.

January 11, 2008: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ambitious policy agenda collided with fiscal reality Thursday as he rolled out a proposed budget that threatens to unravel his investment in schools, healthcare and criminal justice programs.

I could go on, but the point is made. Halper’s trying to change how people traditionally think about government spending.What’s funny is the date of his earliest use of this tactic, at least according to my Nexis search.

May 12, 2005: School groups, healthcare organizations and advocates for the poor, meanwhile, are calling for the governor to invest billions more in those areas.

Why is this significant? That same month, The New Republic reported …

In California, where he has some of his deepest political ties, Lakoff has huddled with local Democrats numerous times. He devoted his presentation at a February retreat to offering advice on the issues that will dominate next year’s gubernatorial campaign

… starting with spending and the budget. Some Dems obliged by using the “invest/investment” claptrap.

And so did Halper. Maybe the timing is a coincidence. But one way or the other, Lakoff set out in early 2005 to change how state Democrats talk about spending — and instead, his biggest California convert ended up being the nominally nonpartisan state government reporter for the state’s most influential newspaper.

Great, just great.

Now I happened to tape a “Which Way, L.A.?” segment with Halper and others that will air today, and he was gracious with me, so I don’t want to pile on him in any way.

But I do wish at some point, the “fact checkers” would contemplate the honesty of depicting generic government spending as an “investment.” It will take some gymnastics to make it seem reasonable.

  1. America’s Finest Blog:
  2. Oct. 21, 2008:

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