The problem with expensive things

booksIf I tell you that something is expensive, what do you think? For example a few years ago I bought a second-hand copy of George Orwell’s essay collection England Your England for $35. Is that expensive? On Amazon a second-hand hardcopy edition of the same collection is $25. Does that change your impression?

If I asked you what the opposite of expensive is, would you say cheap? What do cheap and expensive even actually mean? I’m not interested in a dictionary definition, I’m talking about feeling and context – when do we use these words? How does hearing these words affect the people who hear it?

(And why am I using so many rhetorical questions?)

Using language involves comparison. For example, at $25 that copy of England Your England on Amazon costs less than what I paid. The Kindle edition is $1.88, which is a lot less. If you bought this essay collection in one of these ways (don’t, I’ve found you can get most of Orwell’s essays free online here) you would pay less than I did.

Language also consists of judgement. When I say more or less or modify them with things like much or a bit, I’m really just making a comparison. From the language itself there’s no sense whether one is better than the other. You judge that for yourself. But if I say ‘$35 is expensive for that essay collection’, or ‘$1.88 is really cheap’, the meaning is different. One comes across as better than the other, and it’s the language that told you that.

Words like cheap and expensive carry judgement, particularly in common usage. When we say something is cheap we’re implying often that the price being paid is less than its perceived value, whereas expensive implies more.

Why is this important? Well, over breakfast this morning I read this weekend’s The Saturday Paper. I was focussing on federal politics and economy related articles for a project I’m working on and a few phrases stuck out in a piece in the business section subtitled: Pensioners and health targeted. They were (emphasis mine):

The biggest expense in the budget is social security and welfare

…more than one-third of these expenses go on the age pension.

The second most expensive part of the budget is health.

What struck me about all these phrases is the negative connotation that goes with the words expense and expensive. By using these words in relation to social security, welfare, the age pension and health, the writer – Kirsty Simpson – is implying that spending money on these line items is not a positive thing to do, that the price we pay for these services is higher than their perceived value.

I can’t say whether Simpson intends this meaning – it’s not an opinion piece and I don’t know her broader views or political leanings. But the meaning implied by the use and repetition of those words is exactly what Joe Hockey, Tony Abbott and every other conservative – whatever their political colour – want you to feel about spending money on social services. They want you to think we spend too much on these and other services – like education, public transport, the disability support pension – that the value we receive as a society outweighs how much it costs.

Surely that’s why these responsible financial managers try to reduce how much we as a society spend on them? #sarcasmfont.

But is that what we believe? That public health and medicare and public education cost too much? That providing support for pensioners or the homeless or people living with a disability is a heavy financial burden on society which provides little value? You might, but I certainly don’t. I think spending money on these things adds enormous value to our society – in terms of general well-being, life expectancy, social mobility, participation, sustainability, broadly in terms of social equity and the type of society I want to live in.

If we wanted to frame these ideas in more positive language (I certainly do) I might say that allocating money to public services is a solid investment in the future of our society; that unlike investing in superannuation and the stock market, investing in public services has been shown to return guaranteed benefits to society as a whole.

Unlike an expense, an investment implies an outlay of money for a projected return in the future. Yes, investments are also associated with risk, but history should have taught us by now that investing in public services is a low-risk one.

If progressives want to change the way people think – about public services, about the environment, about social participation – we may need to change how we talk about what we value. When progressives start reaffirming conservative and right wing policy positions through our language choices, it undermines our ability to drive a progressive and socially democratic policy agenda. As U.S.-based political communications expert Anat Shenker-Osorio writes in Don’t Buy It: The Trouble With Talking Nonsense About the Economy:

When our side of the story isn’t audible, the conservative take on things becomes the default.

There was one more use of expense in the same The Saturday Paper article this weekend, in a quote from the Australia Council of Social Service (ACOSS):

restoring the budget “must not be done at the expense of people struggling to survive on the lowest incomes…”

Unlike the other uses in the article, the framing ACOSS uses is more effective in a progressive sense, because it weighs the value of one goal (helping people on low incomes) against another (‘balancing’ the budget). At the same time though there are equal problems with Simpson’s use of the word restore when talking about equalising debt and surplus in the budget, but that’s a story for another time.

In the very first few paragraphs of this piece I (a little sneakily) primed you to think that paying $35 for a second-hand collection of essays was too much. But I didn’t give you all the information. I didn’t say that it was hard copy 1953 first edition in superlative condition, that I found it in Mr Pickwick’s Fine Old Books in Katoomba one rainy winter afternoon. I didn’t say that George Orwell is one of my favourite writers or that I like supporting independent bookstores or that when I saw that it was only $35 my first thought was ‘holy shit, that’s cheap.

I primed you to create an effect. There was something I wanted you to think. Whether I was successful or not  depends both on my skill with words (or otherwise) and also the expectations that you came to the piece with.

As progressives wanting to introduce a left-wing policy agenda, whether we succeed in achieving our goals may depend on our skill with words and the expectations our audiences bring with them.

Let’s choose our words carefully, and encourage others to do the same.

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