Code words and dog whistle economics

Note: Originally, this was a quick and dirty post. But I have reworked it, adding a number of explanatory paragraphs due to useful suggestions from readers I will update this list over time as I think of more words. So refer back to it here at Credit Writedowns. Feel free to make suggestions.

Since economics has become a hot topic with the financial crisis, a lot of people who aren’t economic gurus have a great interest in the topic. I think that’s great. The reality is that there is a code in the economics world just as there is in any profession. For example, in real estate, an agent might say a house is a "must see" or has a "lovely interior" when advertising it. That’s code for "this house looks better on the inside so I have to tell you that or I can’t sell it." In education, a teacher might call a pre-school or primary school student "active" in an evaluation form because they know they must use neutral terminology. But this might be code for "disruptive" or "has an attention deficit".

The intent of this post is to make more plain what is meant by these hidden codes so that anyone can understand why the code is being used instead of the true message. My point is not to say that emotion or morality is illegitimate in economics, although it was clear I lean toward rational argument given the unconscious use of a code word ‘morality play’ in the original version of this post. After all, economics is a social science, not a science as some of its practitioners wished it were; it’s not just about numbers but about social values, ethics and political judgments that are not the same for all people. Sometimes economists act like it is; it is not – and their telling you it is like science is either deception or self-deception.

The code word acts like an emotional marker only for those attuned to the underlying ‘moral’ issues implied by the code. While you may agree with the logical framework behind the code word, the purpose in using the code is to influence emotion instead of logic This is powerful stuff – to the point that one would insists there is no code at all, completely oblivious to the different emotional impact the word has on others.

As for the dog whistle, it is supposed to have one meaning that some can hear but that others can not hear at all or more faintly. It is supposed to be a ‘secret’ language that can be used in public discourse between like-minded people without offending anyone. Many of the terms in the original list were ‘loaded’ i.e. carry negative associations and are therefore a bit obvious to be good dog whistles. So I have since added in words that seem more neutral/non-pejorative but are really code. And so the ‘code’ is what is heard by advocates of the logic behind the dog whistle as opposed to what those opposed to that logic might hear.

I believe you as a reader should always be on the lookout for loaded words that inflame emotions and code and jargon that masks deceptive intent. Sometimes the code is justified – like when banks use ‘robosigners’ to process mortgage applications or when banks get a ‘bailout’ when they are clearly insolvent or when banks commit ‘errors’ in trying to evict people from their home. I say these are the kind of things that should make you angry; you should get worked up about it. Yves Smith and Michael Hudson are masters of using language to evoke emotion – and they make strong arguments. However, a lot of times, the code is used just to divert from a reasoned argument exactly because that argument is weak and must rely on emotion to have appeal. I say you should always do a double take when the code is employed to check whether it is a justifiable use or a cover for something else.

One more thing: occupying the neutral center is not necessarily a great thing. The word ‘bipartisan’ is code for a reason. A lot of times, you have to take sides. There is nothing wrong with that. I take sides all the time, but I am trying to flag it when I do so you know it instead of trying to act like my analysis is always neutral. Sometimes I do so unconsciously though and you should be alert to code as a sign that I have done.

P.S. – I try to avoid these words. But they are insidious. Sometimes they creep in. As I say above, the truth is that sometimes these words are legitimate. So sometimes I consciously use them to evoke the thinking in the code words, although less and less now. Sometimes they just come out – unconsciously. Bailout, morality play, money printing and monetisation are the code words I most use. You as a reader, though, should never give a free pass to anyone though. Always remember to double take when the code word is used.

Also see Kantoos referring to the increased moralising in the Euro debt crisis.

The code is in parentheses – which others may hear, but much more faintly.

  • PIGS/PIIGS = the eurozone periphery aka Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain and sometimes including Ireland (who are shameful debtors, pigs feeding at the trough, too lazy to work hard to actually pay for the things they buy, looking to free-ride on the euro zone)
  • Technocrat = unelected (and therefore illegitimate) policy maker (from elite institutions isolated from the mainstream and middle classes) who works behind the scenes to assist elected officials because of their prior policy experience (and connections to power)
  • Big Government = (statist and freedom-crushing) activist government policy (used to increase the size and scope of government to redistribute wealth illegitimately by government confiscation)
  • Bankster = (contemptible) high level financial services executive (who acts like a mob boss Gangster in ripping off ordinary folks as popularised in recent history by libertarian Murray Rothbard in Right Wing Populism in 1992 but now used more widely)
  • Anschluss economics = (repugnant) economic power play to force another society into a specific economic model (usually done by Germany, harkening back to the Third Reich and the German attempt to dominate Europe militarily)
  • Hippie = (unreasonable and dangerous) Occupy Wall Street protester (dressed like counter-culture and treasonous types from the 1960s and 1970s with no real agenda except creating chaos because of their economic ignorance)
  • Deficit terrorist = someone who sees fiscal deficit as a negative aka a deficit hawk (who acts like a terrorist in forcing pro-cyclical cuts that disproportionately affect the poor, middle and working classes because of uninformed economic views)
  • Trickle down economics = (bogus) supply-side economics that reduces regulation and lowers income taxes and capital gains taxes (in order to give kleptocrats a free hand in stealing legally)
  • Oligarchs = (deceitful and grasping) bankers and corporations who have a dominant role in society (and who act as unelected policy makers, because they bribe and lobby government, pushing policies that favour themselves)
  • Elites = those (untrustworthy) who have either attended what is considered a highly regarded educational institution or work in what is considered a well regarded corporation and who are in a policy making or policy influencing role (but who live in an ivory tower separated from reality that sets them apart ordinary people and gives them the ability to make bad policy decisions which only serve to enrich themselves and others from their caste)
  • Morality play = an (inappropriate) appeal to philosophy and emotion and morality in an economic or political argument (that is illegitimate because morality is bad or at least shouldn’t be a prevailing policy concern and because logic is always superior to emotion as a way of getting a response)
  • Free market = society (worthy of emulation and) guided by deregulated and desupervised economic policy (which is a good thing because freedom connotes choice and choice is good)
  • Job creators = (praiseworthy) individuals that hire or organisations where people work (and should therefore be seen as most responsible for creating jobs and given leeway by regulators, the media and society in general to do as they please)
  • Reform = (good) change that requires significant economic adjustments to implicit social contracts (toward the prevailing economic orthodoxy which includes lower taxes, free markets, and less regulation and should be viewed as positive because reform is viewed as such regardless of the impact on different groups)
  • Moral hazard = a (bad) policy choice which gives someone, some institution or some group within society a break (which they don’t deserve and therefore encourages them to free-ride and mooch off of society)
  • Class warfare = (bad) economic and political policy used to divide people (and pin the blame all on one political group and their allies to gain an unfair political advantage)
  • Wage inflation = (negative) rise in wage rates (that will lead to cost-push inflation and eventually to higher consumer prices unless stopped)
  • Bailout = (an illegitimate) provision of liquidity to forestall bankruptcy (because the recipient is bankrupt and not just temporarily lacking funds, making the financial aid a form of welfare)
  • Liquidity = a (legitimate) use of government and central bank funding to support the functioning of markets (which have temporarily come unstuck and need some limited government intervention until people stop panicking, as opposed to just bailouts for banks, which are illegitimate)
  • Bipartisan = (what everyone should see as a legitimate) policy approach which mainstream economists and policy makers of different political leaning have endorsed (making this effort better than more partisan ideas.
  • Extremist/left-wing/right-wing = (dangerous and contemptible) economic ideas which can be considered outside the mainstream (and should therefore be considered illegitimate)
  • Printing money = (hyperinflationary) economic policy in which the central bank buys existing private sector financial assets for reserves it creates for the that purpose (and which will eventually destroy the value of the currency)
  • Austerity = (necessary) cuts to government spending that often involve wage and price reductions in both public and private sector (in order to make government spending balance government revenue and avoid national bankruptcy or eventual high inflation or hyperinflation)
  • Sustainability = (good) economic policy that avoids negative long-term consequences (like national bankruptcy or eventual high inflation or hyperinflation which are the only result from deficit spending)
  • Austerian = a person who (lacks an understanding of our economic system and) subscribes to the policies of sustainability and austerity (which are illegitimate because government cannot go broke if it is just creating IOUs it can create in infinite quantities and which favour banksters over ordinary people because they are deflationary)
  • Fiscal union = a joining or aligning of government spending policies and prescriptions (that really is necessary in the euro zone to give those that practice good government policy and fiscal probity like Germany control over what profligate nations like the PIGS do)
  • Socialism = an economic system (that has been discredited and is) characterized by (freedom-sapping) social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy (to allow Big Government a hand in turning freedom-loving people into serfs)
  • Financial innovation = (positive) change in the way the financial service industry operates (that helps people since innovation is always good)
  • Competitiveness = an economy that increases productivity often by limits to domestic wage increases (– and this is desirable since being competitive is always a good thing)
  • Big Labor = Unions representing large numbers of people (and harkening back to the debunked socialist ideology in places like Cuba or the Soviet Union which collectivizes labor and retards growth)
  • Special interest groups = organizations that represent large sets of people within a society which have common cause (and want special treatment from government by lobbying or bribing government officials to do their bidding instead what is economically beneficial for the larger population)
  • Structural unemployment = unemployment that arises (only) because of impediments to how the economy is organised (and not because of a lack of aggregate demand and therefore can’t be fought with activist big government policies)
  • Eurocrat = a European policy maker (who is really just a bureaucrat getting an undeserved salary and sucking the life out of Europe and delegitimizing democratic institutions of national governments)
  • European project/European experiment = the European Union and its ancillary institutions like the euro (which are all just experiments that are ephemeral in nature and destined to fail)
  • Entitlements = government-funded pension and healthcare benefits (that are too large, thus creating a statist economy that many of the same people espousing big government feel entitled to receive because of an overall illegitimate sense of entitlement)
  • Monetisation = (illegitimate and potentially illegal currency-destroying) central bank purchases of national government bonds (when the private sector won’t buy those bonds because of big government’s excessive and wasteful spending)
  • Teabagger = someone who supports the Tea Party (and their attempt to destroy America’s social fabric by selling the country out to elites and banksters because they have theirs and you’re on your own)

All of these terms are used to influence emotion rather than speak from a voice of reason. Whenever you see them, you should ALWAYS be suspicious regardless of context or source.

  1. John Bonanno says

    What term do you propose to substitute for “oligarch” for example?

    1. Edward Harrison says

      Banker or corporation (who acts as an unelected policy maker, pushing policies that favour itself through its lobbying of government)

  2. John Bonanno says

    1570s, from M.Fr. oligarchie (14c.), from Gk. oligarkhia “government by the few,” from oligoi “few, small, little” (of unknown origin) + arkhein “to rule” This is a perfectly good and useful word. 

  3. Oldrich says

    Please, I just would like to ask for a clarification. I hope you help me out. Since English is not my first language I wonder whether the expressions like corporate bloodsucking leech, corporate scumbag, media wh*re, snake oil salesman or banking vulture influence emotions instead of logic ?

    1. Edward Harrison says

      I would argue those are almost better terms to use since the emotion is raw and naked. These terms are codes and the intent is to influence emotion deceptively instead of openly.

      Again, we all do it but I want to flag it as an issue that has increased as crisis has increased.

      1. Oldrich says

        I agree that the intent of being deceptive, furtive and indirect is the key differentiating feature. Good point. 

  4. Dave Holden says

    Context is everything with words – as a list to of words which upon reading or saying you should prick up your ears for context it could be useful but only for that.

    1. Edward Harrison says


  5. Knokko10 says

    Here’s a good one: Moral Hazard. That one really makes me sick.

  6. SH says

    I’m neo-classically trained from American colleges and I’ve studied insurance, but from a risk management viewpoint, moral hazard and adverse selection are purely technical terms.  Is there a better way to describe either without being over literal?  A textbook could tell a risk manager to either accept the fact that given an agreement there is a tendency for the those that have the most to gain from the agreement to respond in higher numbers than those that don’t have as much to gain or just to teach the concept and call it adverse selection.  Moral hazard is harder to defend.  Why not just call the behavior cheating?  I think moral hazard actually in the pure technical sense, is somewhat nicer.  Context is everything, but the debate should not be over words, and it should be over quantifying the behavior and analyzing it without bias.  I think you made that point.

    I think this is one you missed lately.  Rentier.  

    I read Hudson’s long ass article and I cannot believe I can agree and disagree so much with one person, but the underlying theme is whether or not Rentiers are entitled to their gains.  I would still say this is a technical term, but it is emotionally charged.

    Here’s another, “keyboard strokes”.  That one sends me shivering.  I think it sends Hudson’s audience in the completely opposite direction.  I cannot even rationally think about this one.

    There’s another one, “rationally”.  This one is huge.  It could be in the sense I just used it as in I cannot consider the argument rationally, because it makes no sense to me or in the sense of homo economicus, the rational and “perfect” human being.

    Why does homo economicus not get respect? because it’s utilized in “models”.  We all live in the world and read the weather every day, but we don’t ask about weather “models”.  In the case of economic models, “model” is easily a bad word.  Every model is unique and the results are unique, so each should be judged independently by results and not be condemned to the realm of “models”.

    Final one for tonight, “petit bourgeois”  Yves uses this one perfectly when she talks about the consequences of OWS action on the immediate surroundings.  It’s purely descriptive.  She’s much better than Hudson on this issue.  Yves could use “bourgeoisie” instead, but she witholds.  I very rarely see much of this out of her.  Yves is much less biased than Hudson.

    Thanks again,

    From another bored Thursday.

  7. SH says

    I almost forgot the big ten pointer in this game which I don’t see in the list.  “Bias”  I don’t know if there is a way to use this word neutrally. 

    Thanks again Ed.  I think this topic was awesome.  I just don’t think you’re even fit to give an unbiased description of the terms you presented.

    In game rules, “your bias prevents you from making an accurate representation”.   Personally, I think a little more exposure and some more reading and we can all hear the dog whistles.  For that, this is a worthwhile exercise.

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