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Language and Politics: "Reducing Government" (A Conceptual Rebuttal)

Updated on December 10, 2015
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.



I don't know if this phenomenon has been formally proven by cognitive science, but I think its real nevertheless. Do you recall a time when you did something, 'X,' and then gave a reason for it that was not the true reason for the action? The true reason was too awkward or embarrassing for you to put out there? The real reason just didn't sound right?

So what you did was to slot in an acceptable alternative, that sounded more appropriate? And did you notice that, over time, that alternative justification sort of, kind of, became the "reason" for the action? Over time, you sanded away and filed down the edges of it, until the square peg, sort of, kind of, fit into that round hole?

I know I can personally attest to having done this. I think I've seen this phenomenon operate in everyday life; and I believe it is a force that has operated and operates in history. As I say, I do not know if this phenomenon has been proven, but I call it substitution.

We live in a time where language itself is becoming more and more degraded. Words don't seem to mean what they ought to mean anymore. I had a poignant experience with this, which need not detain us here. But two of those words, in politics, which don't seem to mean what they should are "reducing" and "government,"---reducing government.

You may recall that after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was something of a public debate between then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and his number two, Paul Wolfowitz versus then Chief of Staff of the Army, General Eric Shinseki, about the number of troops needed to control the country. Shinseki thought that several hundred thousand US forces would be needed. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz found the suggestion outrageous (1).

Now, as someone who is neither in government nor in the military, I am not in any position to make any independent determination about which side was right. However, given the context of what I'm talking about---namely, the degradation of language in American politics---I think it is very likely that they were not debating what they appeared to have been debating.

This phenomenon I have called substitution, is what makes trying to follow American politics so, shall we say, challenging. One is literally not sure if he can believe his ears when politicians talk. Mind you, I am not accusing them of anything so pedestrian as "lying." I'm saying that one cannot be sure that the literal words coming out of the mouths of politicians, mean what they are supposed to mean. One is literally unsure that when a politician utters the word 'up,' he means the skyward direction.

Given this, I think it is likely that when Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz and Shinseki were arguing about troop levels, they were not actually disagreeing about the number of highly trained men with guns, that were needed to hold Iraq. I think it is likely that they were debating---without the public knowing it---the number of those highly trained men with guns needed to be actual government employees and the number who could have been private military contractors (PMCs).

It seems to me that when General Shinseki gave the figure of, say, five-hundred-thousand, he meant that all five-hundred-thousand needed to be actual government employees. When Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz gave a figure of, say, one-hundred-thousand, I think what they were saying was that only one-hundred-thousand needed to be actual government employees and the rest---say, four-hundred-thousand or so---could have been private military contracting personnel.

In other words, I believe that both sides actually agreed that roughly several hundred thousand "US forces" were needed to do the job. The issue between the sides was, most likely, a matter of proportion of PMCs-to-regular government employee troops.

Why do I think that?

Economic journalist, David Cay Johnston, noted, his in 2007 book, Free Lunch: "Despite all the deregulation rhetoric, government grows ever bigger. The number of federal government workers shrinks, but the ranks of people who are hired on contract at much greater cost increases. In 2000 workers hired on contract cost our federal government $207 billion. By 2006 this had swelled to $400 billion---rivaling the expense of either social security of interest on the federal government's growing debt" (2).

Mr. Johnston pointed out that the contractors typically cost twice as much as government civil servants doing the same work, yet they are even less accountable. On top of that, mercenary soldiers usually pull down two to ten times as much as government troops. And it would appear that these private enterprises use the profits they garner from these contracts to lobby for more such special arrangements, thus driving up costs further (3).

And by the way, speaking of "even less accountable," you may recall the time when the head of private military contractor, formerly known as Blackwater, Erik Prince, tried to have it both ways with regard to their activities in Iraq. He said that Blackwater could not be civilly sued because it was part of the U.S. Total Force. At the same time, he said that his organization was not subject to the Uniform Military Code because they were civilians (4).

So why does this kind of thing happen?

One justification is that this is about "reducing government," removing the yoke of oppressive, overweening, "Big Brother is Watching," government bureaucracy. Its about breaking the shackles of runaway, overreaching, freedom-suffocating federalism. Its about moderating federal power over the rights of states, the rights of individuals to make their own decisions, and so on and so forth. Its about bringing to an end to the "age of big government," for the good of freedom.

Another justification is efficiency. The idea is that business runs things---just about anything---more efficiently than bureaucratic government. We're talking about privatization in the name of efficiency (5).

The first justification doesn't work because, as we've just seen, the number of people doing the work does not go down. The number of people doing the job goes up, along with the cost of paying them.

The second justification, I think, is unverifiable. That is: How did policy makers and businesspeople know that such privatization would be "more efficient"? Today, they might say that there is some kind of "track record" of success, and so forth.

1. I think that claim is dubious, at best. But let's leave that aside.

2. What about the very first time this maneuver was tried? How did anyone know it would "work"? Had there been previous "tests" set up or computer simulations?

Here's where substitution comes in.


Suppose I was a big-time movie director and you were an actor. Let us suppose that you and I had not seen each other in over ten years.

Let's suppose that I run into you on the street and we greet each other effusively, glad to see each other. We have a cup of coffee and a Danish somewhere.

We sit and talk and catch up on old times. Let us suppose that you, though you don't say it, have been going through some hard times over the last five or so, years; you have had a tough, bitter divorce, which left you somewhat financial depleted.

Let's just say that I, as the big-time movie director, "heard it through the grapevine," as it were. I know this about you and you do not know that I know. What I know is that you could really use some cash.

Now then, let us suppose that I---the big-time movie director---am in the middle of making "my latest, star-studded blockbuster."

Do you see where this is going?

Now then, instead of pulling out a fat rolls of thousand dollar bills or my checkbook, and saying, "How much do you need, my friend?," I say: You're perfect for the lead in my next star-studded, Action-Jackson, thrilling mega blockbuster. Its gonna be big, baby!"

Of course, it goes without saying that you have to be a decent thespian, talent-wise and so forth.

You agree and I cast you and the film is a really big hit. All's well that ends well.

Now then, I--Mr. Big-Time Movie Director---am never, ever, ever, ever, EVER going to say, publicly, something like: Hey look at me, world! Ain't I great? I threw a charity bone to this down and out actor, whose common law husband took her to the cleaners!

I---Mr. Big Time Movie Director---am not going to embarrass you like that.

I am not going to humiliate you like that.

I am not going to hang you out to dry like that.

I am not going to ever make you look bad like that.

I am not going to make you look desperate like that and thereby risk messing up your future prospect to work "in this town."

I am not going to make myself look UNPROFESSIONAL like that. My first loyalty is supposed to be to the film.

You---Ms. Grateful Thespian---are never, ever, ever, ever, EVER going to publicly admit: Gosh, darn, Golly Gee! I am sure grateful for my friend, Mr. Big Time Movie Director, for picking me up out of the gutter, by giving me a job on his Big Time Picture Show; I sure am! Yup, yup!

You are not going to say anything like that.

You are not going to embarrass yourself like that.

You are not going to humiliate yourself like that.

You are not going to hang yourself out to dry like that.

You're not going to ever make yourself look bad like that.

You are not going to prove to other perspective directors that you are too stupid to live like that.

Does that make sense?

What I, as the big-time movie director, am going to talk about, in interviews about my blockbuster, is how right you are for the role. I'm going to talk about that certain, special something you bring to the table. I'm going to pat myself on the back for such "brilliant" casting. I'm going to talk about how you were the first and only one I ever "envisioned" for the role. I am going to portray myself as inspired, decisive, visionary, and all that good stuff, for having had the "genius" to cast you.

You are going to go along with all of that, as far as humility will allow, of course.

Let's apply the above formula to activity of "reducing government" privatization.

Why does it happen, if not for the cause of "freedom" or "efficiency"?

Maybe it simply happens when private enterprise needs assistance. Private enterprise runs into the innumerable crises that beset the capitalist system, and these organizations find themselves in need of other channels through which they can sell their goods and/or services for profit, to keep the bottom line looking healthy for their investors and executive bonuses, not to mention their position in the stock market.

If this is true---which I think it is---then this is something that neither politicians nor their "friends," the corporate chiefs could hardly directly and publicly admit. That would sound unprofessional and make American private enterprise look unacceptably weak.

Question: How do we know that senior, top-level politicians and senior, top-level corporate types are "friends"?

Answer: This has been studied by sociologists and political scientists. Senior, top-level politicians and senior, top-level corporate types comprise a social class known as the "ruling class" of the social "upper class."

Let me quote one of the leading researchers of the American power structure, research professor of psychology and sociology, G. William Domhoff.

"The upper class probably makes up only a few tenths of one percent of the population. For research purposes, I use the conservative estimate that includes 0.5% to 1% of the population for determining the over-representation of its members in corporations , nonprofit organizations, and the government. Members of the upper class live in exclusive suburban neighborhoods, expensive downtown co-ops, and large country estates. They often have far-away summer and winter homes as well. They attend a system of private schools that extends from pre-school to the university level; the best known of these schools are the 'day' and 'boarding' prep schools that take the place of public high schools in the education of most upper-class teenagers. Adult members of the upper class socialize in expensive country clubs, downtown luncheon clubs, hunting clubs, and garden clubs. Young women of the upper class are 'introduced' to high society each year through an elaborate series of debutante teas, parties, and balls. Women of the upper class gain experience as 'volunteers' through a nationwide organization known as the Junior League, and then go on to serve as directors of cultural organizations, family service associations, and hospitals" (6).

Furthermore: "By the 'social upper class,' ... I mean is that social class that is commonly agreed by most members of the society to be the 'top' or 'elite' or 'exclusive' class. In various times and places Americans have called such people the 'high hats,' the 'country club set,' the 'snobs,' and the 'rich.' In turn, members of this class recognize themselves as distinctive. They call themselves such names as the 'old families,' the 'established families,' and the 'community leader'" (7).

One more passage: "The upper class and the closely related corporate community do not stand alone at the top of the power structure. They are supplemented by a wide range of nonprofit organizations that play an important role in framing debates over public policy and in shaping public opinion. These organizations are often called 'nonpartisan' or 'bipartisan' because they are not identified with politics or with either of the two major political parties. But they are the real 'political party' of the upper class in terms of insuring the stability of the society and the compliance of government" (8).

I think I'll leave it there.

Thank you so much for reading! :)


1. Schmitt, E. (2003, February 28). Threats and Responses: Military Spending; Pentagon Contradicts General on Iraq Occupation Force's Size. Retrieved January 30, 2015.

2. Johnston, David Cay. Free Lunch: How The Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (And Stick You With The Bill). Portfolio, 2007. 20

3. ibid, 20

4. Hemingway, M. (2007, September 26). Blackwater's Legal Netherworld: Private Security Contractors are Subject to Military Justice--Or Are They? Retrieved January 30, 2015.

5. Harvey, David. The Enigma of Capital and The Crises of Capitalism. Oxford University Press, 2010. 28

The game goes international in the late-1980s and 1990s.

Political-economist, David Harvey, wrote: "In a desperate attempt to find more places to put the surplus capital, a vast wave of privatisation swept around the world carried on the backs on the dogma that state-run enterprises are by definition inefficient and lax and that the only way to improve their performance is to pass them over to the private sector."

6. Domhoff, G. (2005, April 1). The Class-Domination Theory of Power: The Social Upper Class. (paragraph 3). Retrieved January 30, 2015.

7. ibid, paragraph 2

8. Domhoff, G. (2005, April 1). The Class-Domination Theory of Power: How Government Policy Is Shaped From Outside Government. (paragraph 1).


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      3 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @Rodric29: Thank you so much for that! The thing I go for, most of all, is clarity. I don't try to play games with words, to make myself seem smarter than I am. I want to be understood by the average thirteen-year-old; I may succeed at this better at some times than others, but that is what I go for.

      Take care, man! :)

    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Anthony Johnson 

      3 years ago from Peoria, Arizona

      Opening lines of this hub:

      "Do you recall a time when you did something, 'X,' and then gave a reason for it that was not the true reason for the action? The true reason was too awkward or embarrassing for you to put out there? The real reason just didn't sound right?

      "So what you did was to slot in an acceptable alternative, that sounded more appropriate? And did you notice that, over time, that alternative justification sort of, kind of, became the "reason" for the action? Over time, you sanded away and filed down the edges of it, until the square peg, sort of, kind of, fit into that round hole?"

      The reason why I put this here is to display how simply you defined the substitution. Had I been pay close attention I would have never had a question about what it means or have been confused about its application.

      I went back and read portion of this hub again and saw that you have done a swell job of simplifying the you writing to appeal to many but be complex enough to be taken seriously. Voted up again!

    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Anthony Johnson 

      3 years ago from Peoria, Arizona

      wingedcentaur, as I come to expect, I love your comments. You should take your comments and alter then for another website as definitions or something. I feel that for some reason your comments are not getting the attention that they need.

      I am confident in understanding how you use substitution in this article. I apply it to the War between the States. I just used substitution!

      I know I sound like a groupie. I am just glad I have something entertaining and informative to read. I find that I am mixing some of your articles up in my head. They seem to all connect in some way, at least what I have read so far.

      I am looking forward to the "Cold War" hub that you will present.

      Oh, and bradmasterOCcal, I get what you say about those passive aggressive subverters! I think that you could hub about it! From your comments it seems that you would do a good job.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      3 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @Rodric29 and bradmasterOCcal: A Very Good Day To You, Sirs!

      Let me say this about "substitution":

      1. All lying is NOT created equal. All lying does not call "substitution" into play.

      2. Those acts of lying which are clearly criminal, immoral, and unethical never, as far as I can see, bring "substitution" into play. The reason for this is the fact that Job#1 of the offender is to avoid all detection. He will not be questioned or asked to justify himself if he is never found out.

      3. Even when he is caught, he cannot deploy substitution because there is no legitimate reason he can give for his actions (adultery, embezzlement, a priest revealing the secrets of a trusting parishioner, etc).

      4. "Substitution" is for acts that are legal and legitimate, and sometimes unusual and precedent-shattering. Substitution is deployed by the actor, so as not to look weak, incompetent, mean, or afraid.

      5. When I hear an explanation for something (again legal and legitimate) that does not comport with the justifications given, I suspect "substitution" is at work.

      6. For example, bradmasterOCcal, I am going to be writing something about the American/Western and Soviet/Easter so-called "Cold War." I am going to be using "substitution" to argue against the usual justification given for it. I am going to be arguing that it was really about white-on-white racism and imperialism, rather than "We got to stop the spread of insidious, collectivist, Soviet Communism."

      7. You see, substitution will come into play because, as I will be arguing, it sounds more professional to say, "We gotta stop communism," than what was really on their minds, something like, "We gotta put those Slavs back in their place."

      8. For the leaders of the United States and the West to actually say why they were putting on the Cold War against the Soviet Union, would have been to unacceptably---from their own point of view---reveal themselves as racist and mean and bloodthirsty. You know, when you think about it, I guess there is a real good reason why vampires cast no reflection---even they cannot stand to face what they are...

      9. Rodric29: The Mitt Romney might be a good example, if we could know for sure that when he suggested that the party choose a younger, newer face than his, the remarks were pointed squarely at Jeb Bush; perhaps it was a way of saying, "Go for change! Don't choose another Bush." Romney would not want to say that directly because it would make him look mean and petty and as if he held something against Jeb Bush personally or the Bush family; or it might have been a coded way of saying, "If I can't have the nomination, for God's sake, don't select yet another Bush!"

      Take care, guys! :D

    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Anthony Johnson 

      3 years ago from Peoria, Arizona

      I read this, commented and it just disappeared before I sent it! Any way, I understand your substitution and how you say it applies to government. Mitt Romney is a good example of this method in his comment to the world that he will not run for government. He suggested that the republican party choose a younger, newer face to represent him. Some other commenter to my article about it said what he really meant was "Don't choose Jed Bushe!"

      Did I get it right. Is that an example of substitution. Also, I am not advocating against or for Jed or Mitt by using them as examples here. I don't want this to become a political bash-fest.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad Masters 

      3 years ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD


      Sorry, I didn't comment sooner but I don't get some of the comment responses on the list that comes up on the home page. Sometimes, I have to go through my activity list.

      Anyway, I understand your examples, but they were bolstering the frailty of the person. What I was talking about were the passive aggressive people that agree with you while conceiving a plan of attack and use that information against. you.

      The other one is spin to difuse an embarrassment and lessen any negative implication.

      Maybe if you use some current examples with known humans, I might better understand why I am not getting your point.


    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      3 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Now then, we get the term "sour grapes" from the parable of the fox and the grapes on the tree.

      One day the fox wanted to get some grapes hanging from a high branch of a tree. He tried and tried, but could not get them.

      He dismissed the whole affair by saying that he had not wanted them anyway, because they were sour.

      Now, this statement, by the fox, raises two questions:

      1. If the grapes were sour, why were you, Mr. Fox, trying to get them?

      2. How did you know, Mr. Fox, that the grapes were sour, since you were unable to get them?


      a. the "round peg hole" is: Why, Mr. Fox, didn't you get the grapes?

      b. the correct round peg is: because I could not reach them, and had no way to get them.

      c. In this case, though, the fox does NOT use the correct round peg, because he does not want to publicly admit his insufficiency, his weakness, his situational incompetence.

      d. Because of his fear of admitting vulnerability, he will not admit this. Instead, he says the grapes were sour, and therefore, he did not want them anyway.

      e. But, again, this raises the two questions: Why was he trying to get the grapes, if they were sour?; How did he know that the grapes were sour, when he could not even get them?

      f. The answer he constructs to the two questions will be the alternate "peg" which he tries to fit into the hole of (Why didn't you, Mr. Fox, get the grapes?)

      g. So, the fox might strain for an "explanation" and come up with something like this: "Oh, uh, you see... I saw the blue jay birds fly away from the tree in disgust, and when I saw that I knew the grapes were no good; because it's a well known fact that blue jay birds are connoisseurs of grapes.

      Blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada....

      If the fox is not careful, he will spread a whole body of misinformation and have people thinking that blue jay birds are indeed connoisseurs of grapes. Maybe vineyards will start keeping flocks of blue jay birds; and only use the grapes that they eat to make wine....

      When I applied this formula to the claim of "reducing government" and "efficiency," I was testing the claims and since I found them wanting, I looked for another explanation. This is why I used the movie director-actor example of the dynamic I believe is oftentimes at play when politicians give certain reasons for doing things, which don't make sense when examined critically.

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      3 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @bradmasterOCcal: Hi, how's it going?

      Let's pin down this "substitution" thing.

      1. All lying is not created equal. For example, if a guy named Steve embezzles money from the bank where he works, that is "lying" and stealing. But he would not try to use substitution because he wants to avoid detection entirely.

      2. I'm talking about the way legitimate or potentially legitimated behavior--which makes one look vulnerable or weak in some way---can be justified.

      3. You are not trying to hide this behavior, but, again, it makes you look weak or vulnerable in some way; or your judgment is somehow called into question because of it.

      4. Let's take the parable of the fox and the sour grapes.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad Masters 

      3 years ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD


      I agree that your definition of substitution fits, but it is not universal because there are other reasons at play.

      The passive aggressive uses the agree in front while scheming in the background. They are not confrontational, and yet they are more dangerous than those people that verbally assault you.

      Politicians want people to believe that they agree with them and that they understand what they are feeling. Yes, this is a kind of substitution but it is different in the motive.

      Now how do Spin and Substitution relate to your theory?


    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      3 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      @bradmasterOCcal: Thank you so much for commenting. Good Day to you, sir!

      I use the term 'substitution,' for a socio-psychological phenomena, which I believe exists (and it is even possible that cognitive science has already identified, for all I know).

      Substitution, as I have defined it is not obfuscation for the sake of politeness. As I have defined it, one lies to oneself first. The reason one lies to oneself is because his true reason for doing something does not sound right, does not sound professional.

      When you run up against that difficulty, you slot in a reason that sounds better, one that you, yourself, can eventually, overtime, convince yourself of.

      This is why I gave the example of the movie director and actor. It does not sound "good" or "professional" for the director to say to the world "The reason I gave this actor the role is because he is a friend of mine, and he is broke." That happens to be the truth, in my example, but for obvious reasons, you simply cannot say that.

      Now, both the movie director and the actor are both thinking to themselves, "How can we spin this?"

      For all of this to go over relatively quietly, the actor should be actually a pretty decent thespian; that would help.

      Over time, that square peg ("You are perfect for the lead") gets sanded down and filed down, over time, to sort of, kind of, "fit" into the round hole of ("Why did you cast that role with this person?").

      You see the actual, round peg to fit in that hole is ("I gave him the role because he was broke.") But because that makes both of you look bad, you don't say that; you don't really want to think it.

      I hope that clarification helps. Its important to be clear about that because that is the formula I used to decode certain political language.

      Let's start with that.

      Take it easy.

    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      Brad Masters 

      3 years ago from Orange County California BSIT BSL JD

      It was very difficult to read and understand the points that you were trying to make here.

      Substitution as you describe it is merely the veneer of people trying to be polite so as not to offend the other person, or make a confrontation.

      In politics, it is to use words that will not evoke a negative reaction, even though it should.

      Using the example of the military is not a fair one, because that is a separate part of the government where reducing government is questionalbe.

      But reducing the size and scope of government in the other areas would by a fairer comparison for government leaders against business leaders.

      The main difference here is that the government is not constrained by budgets, or disappointing their stock holders who can remove them from office within the year.

      When the government speaks the chances of veracity are doubtful, but when a CEO speaks the bottom line is the verification.



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