Saturday, April 21, 2012

Eugene Volokh's odd language judgment

Mitt Romney is being criticized for this comment:
Today, our freedom is never safe — because unelected, unaccountable regulators are always on the prowl. And under President Obama, they are multiplying. The number of federal employees has grown by almost 150,000 under this president.
Before I explain, please look at the above quote and guess how many new "regulators" were added to the government payroll under Obama. Did you think "150,000"? Because I didn't. I thought, "How would I know? And what counts as a regulator, anyway?"

Volokh points with approval to this post by Washington Post‘s Fact Checker where they write
But context is important. Romney’s phrasing suggests that many of these new employees are “unelected, unaccountable regulators.”
But clearly it suggests no such thing. There is a clear and unambiguous change of subject between the first sentence and the third. The subject of the first sentence (well, the second clause of the first sentence) is "unelected, unaccountable regulators". The subject of the third sentence (well, the object of the subject's descriptive prepositional phrase) is "federal employees". It is beyond me how anyone with even average skills at reading comprehension could miss that explicit change of subject.

Romney's overall point was the problems of big government, not regulators in particular. He gave a series of sound bites directed at the dangers of a large and growing federal government. This is an extremely common technique in persuasive speeches --throw out a series of short factoids with an overall general point. For example, someone arguing that America is sports crazy might say:
Baseball is America's most popular summer pastime. And it's popularity is growing. Sports have higher attendance than ballet, plays, and opera combined.
Is the author trying to sneakily make people think that Baseball alone has higher attendance than the finer arts? Of course not. That's why he explicitly changed the subject from baseball to sports. Both factoids contributed separately to the overall argument. Only an inept writer would have written that pair of sentences just because he didn't want to overuse the word "baseball". Only an inept reader would have read it that way. (by the way, I have do idea of the baseball factoids are true).

I'm not going to criticize the Washington Post's language judgement because they are writing political commentary, and you expect that kind of straw-man argument in political commentary. I would criticize them for dressing up political commentary as objective fact checking, but that isn't the subject of this post.

What astonishes me is that Eugene Volokh agrees with the criticism, writing:
Romney’s statement strongly implies that the “almost 150,000″ extra federal employees are “unelected, unaccountable regulators.”
Now Volokh is something of an authority on writing, so I don't know what to make of this judgment of his. He give the following example from a book he wrote on writing:
Guns, one article says, “produce a toll of over 35,000 killed every year and hundreds of thousands more raped, robbed, and assaulted in firearms-related violence.” Quick: About how many gun murders were there in 1995, the year that the author was likely talking about?
He then goes on to say that over half of those 35,000 were suicides, which is surprising to most readers.

But this is an entirely different situation. The phrase "produce a toll" is a deliberately vague and misleading phrase that refers to situations where the presence of the gun caused a bad outcome. When people think "produce a toll", they think of attacks and accidents, not self defense where the presence of the gun improved the outcome and suicide where the presence of the gun was probably irrelevant to the outcome.

Romney's phrase "the number of federal employees" is not misleading in that way. The only thing that is deceptive about Romney's number is that he included military people with civilians. Federal employees is usually understood to refer only to civilians.

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