I saw the movie Imitation Game last weekend, which is the story of Alan Turing and his role in breaking the Enigma Code which shortened World War II and saved millions of lives. (Spoiler Alert: He did it, we won.) Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was terrific, even if you’re not a certified “Cumberbitch.” It got me thinking that to actually navigate this economy, you have to be pretty good at code breaking. There’s always a lot of code speak. First, there’s the code of each of the hermetically sealed subcultures of business and markets (recent example on my desk is a note entitled: Response to BCBS/IOSCO Consultation Document by GFMA, AFIRE, ASIFMA and SIFMA). We will come back to this in a later commentary, but today let’s focus on officialdom when the often intentionally obscure or misleading Orwellian doublespeak of politics and policy achieve its higher expression. Is it getting worse? Well, it’s certainly not getting better.
So we thought it would be helpful to provide our own Enigma Machine, to help everyone break the code around some very recent “repurposed” words and phrases:
Here are some of our favorites:
- The [senior government official] is concerned.
Translation: Someone thinks that they ought to be concerned or even worse, doing something. Meanwhile a poll is commissioned and all involved flitter about with fabricated purposefulness until the Sauron’s Eye of the 24 hour news cycle moves on to be fascinated by something else. With luck, we can avoid doing anything.
- Anything from the Federal Reserve.
Translation: As Chairman Greenspan said, “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” That remains a good rule when trying to sort out what the Fed is thinking. However, in its defense, it is the only organ of government which actually intends not to be understood and is quite straightforward about it.
- Full and frank discussion.
Translation: The two sides are incredibly pissed off at each other and probably just barely avoided throwing bric-a-brac across the table. One or more parties referred to the others’ mother.
- This legislation is tax neutral.
Translation: It’s not, but since no one really knows how one figures this tax neutrality thing out, you probably can’t be proved wrong. And in any event, it is really about an increase to someone’s taxes or a decrease to someone else’s taxes or increased spending but never at the same time.
- Mr. Draghi – We will do whatever is necessary.
Translation: I have no idea what will get us out of this current quandary. I have a deep suspicion, bordering on certainty, that monetary policy can’t possibly do it, but I am pretty certain that the politicians won’t do the real work necessary to fix things and good heavens, if we delay the final denouncement long enough, the good fairy may bail us out. And I saw a Clint Eastwood movie and it sounded like something cool he would say to a punk.
- [Anything said by the North Koreans.]
Translation: Is so random, meaningless and humorous in its own evil madman sort of way that one can actually enjoy North Korean official propaganda. And let’s face it, no matter how long, loud and risible their communiqués might be, it all amounts to a noisy effort to distract their own people who might otherwise figure out their government is a gigantic fraud.
- Fairness requires [fill in blank].
Translation: “I plan to take something from someone who will not vote for me and give it to somebody else who will.”
- It’s Wall Street vs. Main Street.
Translation: Yet another politician has figured out that blackmailing our major banks and financial institutions to punish them for alleged misdeeds is “Fair” (see definition of fairness, above). It has almost no political costs, it is fun and profitable. (Note that the rules of this particular game provide that there is no obligation to actually give any of the filthy lucre gotten from said banks to the alleged victims of the alleged malfeasance. It can be used for any vote-buying purpose).
- In this new Congress, we will reach across the aisle.
Translation: We’re trying to fool you. You know we’re trying to fool you. We know you know we’re trying to fool you. Maybe the public doesn’t know we’re both trying to fool them!
- We will bend the cost curve.
Translation: Something that all politicians say about any number of things, recently most notably, healthcare. They have no idea what it means, but it sounds prudent, serious and adult-like. If you think it means reducing the cost of whatever the heck they’re talking about, then you’re almost certainly wrong.
- Chinese government: We will pursue both Big Fish and Small Fry for lack of Discipline.
Translation: Sorry comrade. You’re on the wrong side of a major power shift and these things will happen. Wanna buy a bullet?
- Austerity must give way to Growth.
Translation: When spoken by a European politician it means we can’t fix our problems without getting turfed out of office by the voters. But it sounds so much better to say that we’re in favor of growth than to say we are in favor of keeping our jobs.
Living in this clutter of truth, untruth, advocacy, doublespeak and misdirection every single day, one wastes an incredible amount of time and energy de-constructing these verbal artifices and figuring out what folks really mean and what is the shape of the underlying reality. Worse, just like Enigma, the code changes all the time. And if you don’t get the memo, even those who know the joke will sometimes find a yawning gap between what they think they know and what is real. Worse, we know a lot of people (voters) don’t get the joke in the first place.
Of course, as with Captain Renault in Casablanca, we cannot gin up real outrage (“I am shocked, shocked!”). This is simply us. It’s probably baked into the human DNA (caveman version: This is a rock for peace I’m holding in my hand. I couldn’t possibly hit you with a peace rock.) Look, we’re not seriously proposing that we abandon the world of obfuscation, double speak, misdirection and language larded with acronyms, insider references, and cliquish humor. It’s not possible and it’s probably not desirable.
So just relax and enjoy the game. But when you go out, don’t leave your decoder ring at home.