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Budget Linguistics

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PAUL RYAN
The Washington Post via Getty Images

A few months ago I was in a restaurant and noticed a mistake on the check. "I'm sorry," the waiter said, suggesting there was nothing he could do about the overcharge. "That's how it's in the computer."

I was recently reminded of that incident when I testified at a budget hearing in the House, particularly in the language used by those who want to seriously shrink the budget. You hear this language so much, you rarely stop and think about it, but it's pernicious and a lot more serious than getting charged for something you didn't order.

The root of the problem, and why I connected it with the waiter, is the passivity in the language. "The budget is on an unsustainable path." "The entitlements are going to bankrupt us." "The national debt will swallow everything."

In fact, I opened my testimony with that very point:

It is common these days for some policy makers to label our debt as "unsustainable." This is only the case if policy makers fail to undertake further steps to put the debt on a sustainable path, reinforcing the significant improvements in recent years. Those steps must involve a balanced fiscal policy that includes both new revenues and spending cuts, as well as building on recent progress in slowing the rate of growth of health costs.

You see, they're in charge. It is their job to work together to achieve sustainability. I'm no linguist, but the passivity and transference inherent in the language is to my ears akin to the famous elocution: "mistakes were made."

Here's the way I think about this. Every working day I get in my car and head east from VA to DC. That means that if I time it right and avoid the traffic, I'm driving at pretty high speeds heading right for the ocean (or the bay... whatever... that's not the point). In this regard, I'm on an unsustainable path, barreling ahead toward the briny deep and certain death.

Yet well before that fatal moment, I slow down, turn off the highway and head for the garage at work. I don't blame everyone else for my predicament. I don't throw up my hands and whine about unsustainability. I do something about it.

Now, it's easier to drive to work than to work with the opposition party to agree on budgets. It's easier still to ignore your job and write down budgets, as did Rep. Ryan, with impossibly unrealistic spending cuts and massive tax cuts, paid for by way of a magic asterisk the size of Jupiter (he says he'll close tax loopholes but neglects to name even one).

But one way to avoid doing your job is to frame the whole problem as out of your hands, even though, in the case of Congress and the budget, the Constitution you swore to uphold puts that responsibility quite centrally in your hands.

I made the waiter fix my bill. I've yet to be able to make Congress do their job, but neither have I given up.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.