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B. Jeffrey Madoff

B. Jeffrey Madoff

Posted March 30, 2009 | 07:08 AM (EST)

Yelling From the Back Step


I had a dear friend named Herzy. It was an unusual name, Herzy, never heard it before. I asked him if he was named after a relative.

"No. My mother didn't have any relatives she got along with so she didn't want my name to remind her of people she didn't like."

"How did she come up with your name?"

"My mother," said Herzy, "told me she chose it by going out on the back step and yelling different names until one sounded right.

I always wondered about names, especially names associated with ideas, and if they went through a similar process, much like Herzy's mother naming him. How does the government and business come up with the names they use for their ideas?

Who yelled out "toxic assets" and convinced people that that was a good name?

"Toxic assets" are two words that don't belong together in the English language. The meaning of one cancels out the meaning of the other. Toxic means poisonous. Asset means a useful or desirable thing, something of value. The opposite of "asset" is liability which means money owed, debt or something disadvantageous. "Toxic liability" goes together, it means poisonous debt that is disadvantageous to our economy.

Recently, the name was changed to "legacy assets". The term is another example of misdirection, but it doesn't hit you over the head with the idea of poisoned money, you have to pause and wonder; "What the hell does that mean?" "Legacy" is something that is handed down from the past. A "legacy asset" would be like an inheritance or a budget surplus, something of value. What we've been handed is a huge debt, not a "legacy asset". Clarity is not part of the criteria for government or corporate speak.

I have a friend who worked at Merrill Lynch, a senior vice-president, worked there for nineteen years until:

"I got called into Human Resources." he said, "They told me I was being "actioned".

"What does that mean?" I asked

"That's what I asked the head of HR, it was a new one to me too."

"Your department is being downsized, "he was told.

"Downsized."
"Yes."

"I'm fired?"
"Yes."

"Actioned means I'm being taken out of action?"

"Yes."

That's what it meant. Literally, he was being "acted upon" which in corporate terms meant he was fired. Terminated -- no longer part of the action. "Actioned" is a newer term, replacing the contradictory older term, "downsized", coined in the early 70s during that recession.

"Downsized" is a uniquely American name that attempts to camouflage the real, unpleasant meaning, by combining two words into a term that makes no sense on its own.

When my apartment was painted a tarp was thrown over the furniture. Tarps are used to cover something. I wondered what was being covered when I heard the term "TARP", an acronym for "Troubled Asset Relief Program". The answer is "bad debt". We don't have troubled assets, we are in trouble because we have so much bad debt.

Acronyms can be tricky. No matter how cunning a linguist you are, they can trip you up. I think the best acronyms are descriptive of the words they are standing in for. How about instead of Troubled Asset Relief Program it was called Securitized Holdings Investment Trust?

That brings us to another term, "economic bailout plan". To "bail out" means to escape a crash, like bailing out of an airplane. Another meaning is "coming to the rescue", like a government bailout, which also can be interpreted as avoiding a crash.

Government bailouts are not new: Chrysler Motors got government loan guarantees in 1979 to avoid bankruptcy. In 2001, the airlines were bailed out by the government for 15 billion dollars. The Savings and Loan crisis in the 1980s which extended into the early 90s was not as severe as the current economic crisis, but it was pretty bad, leading to a government bailout of over $124 billion:

According to the FDIC: "The distinguishing feature of the history of banking in the 1980s was the extraordinary upsurge in the number of bank failures. Between 1980 and 1994 more than 1,600 banks insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation were closed or received FDIC financial assistance, far more than in any other period since the advent of federal deposit insurance in the 1930s."

The interesting parallel between the Savings & Loan Crisis and our current problems is that back then, regulations were removed that opened the door to highly risky investments in real estate which spiraled into higher risk in order to keep money flowing and those risky investments got packaged into an opaque financial product that at least had an accurate name, "junk bonds". Junk bonds created the illusion of great value for the Wall Street Investment firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, the fifth largest investment bank in the United States -- until it went bankrupt in 1990.

One thing we can learn from past government bailouts is that we don't seem to learn much from past government bailouts.

Something that isn't a parallel but interesting is a name being yelled from the back step now, that wasn't yelled during the previous government bailouts: "SOCIALIST!" I don't know what makes this bailout socialist and the others not.

With all the bad connotations surrounding the name "economic bailout plan", changing that moniker to "economic recovery plan" seemed like a good idea. You probably would feel better yelling "RECOVERY!" from the back step than yelling "BAILOUT!". Verbal crisis management.

Sometimes a good word goes bad. "Bonus" is a term that used to have a very positive connotation. A bonus is defined as a gift to reward performance, something given or paid over and above what is due, usually in appreciation for work done. Lately, it had gotten a very negative connotation, (look up AIG, hundreds of articles, commentaries and righteous indignation as to why). The term morphed to "retention bonus" rationalized as a necessary tactic to keep the "best and the brightest" employed, itself an odd descriptive choice for those whose division contributed to the largest financial quarterly loss in corporate history. Once it was discovered that eleven of those who were to receive a substantial part of the bonus had already left the company, the idea of retention could not be retained. We were back to just "bonus" again, but with the good connotation gone.

In terms of names having bad connotations, AIG is probably in the lead for the company name that has the worst out there, a title previously held by Enron.

"I think the AIG name is so thoroughly wounded and disgraced that we're probably going to have to change it," CEO Edward Liddy told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee last Wednesday."

When companies decide to change their name or "re-brand" that usually involves a major name change. Philip Morris Companies became Altria Group, Blackwater Worldwide became Xe. AIG became AIU -- sounds a bit close to "IOU". You can bet they overpaid their public relations firm for coming up with that name change.

Herzy's mother kept yelling names from the back step until one sounded right. His mother liked Hershey's chocolate. "Hershey" became "Herzy" because she had a German accent. Names that sound right don't have to change, there is an inherent integrity that makes them clear, besides, everybody likes chocolate.