Economic and Political Rhetoric
Flipping through an old economics textbook provided a stark reminder of just how important language can be — and how quickly it changes. In the original 1948 edition of Paul Samuelson’s Economics text, he notes (p.7):
… words may be treacherous because we do not react in a neutral manner to them. Thus a man who approves of a government program to ration housing will call it a program of “social planning,” while an unsympathetic opponent will describe the same activity as “totalitarian bureaucratic regimentation.” Who can object to the former, and who could condone the latter?
Clearly the emotional content ascribed to “social planning” has changed. I’m willing to bet that neither Obama nor McCain is going to describe any of his policies as “social planning” (although each may describe the other’s policies that way).
By the way, rereading Samuelson’s first edition is an amazing experience. Samuelson’s book is easily the greatest economics textbook ever written; it was the foundational text for several generations of undergraduates.
Even today, the original 1948 edition reads astonishingly well. The introductory chapter alone is a beautifully written essay on economics and economic methodology (you can read it for free here).
And while modern textbooks typically begin with a list of the dozen or so key lessons of economics, Samuelson begins with a single claim: “The first lesson in economics is: things are often not what they seem.”