October 3, 2008
The Semantics of Branding and Re-branding the Bailout
"Go directly to jail. Do not pass 'Go.' Do not collect $700,000,000,000."
That kind of mental association is exactly the reason Senator John McCain wants to re-name the highly contentious Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. He wants to talk about a rescue package instead. Others are talking about a "recovery plan."
You can't entirely blame McCain. As anyone who has ever driven past a courthouse knows, "bail" is inextricably associated with crime.
But because people speak colloquially of bailing their friends out of trouble, there's a stronger mental association between the word "bailout" and the idea of getting off the hook.
But in legal terms, bail is something offered up in exchange for temporary freedom. It allows someone accused of a crime to await trial in the comfort of his or her own home rather than in the local jail. The accused still has to face trial, and could still go to prison, or even end up on death row.
The other primary non-slang usage of the phrasal verb "bail out" applies to leaky boats. If you don't want to sink before you can get to shore, you have to bail the water out faster than it comes in. Again, bailing is not a long-term solution. Once you make it back to shore, you have to haul the boat into dry-dock and get the leak fixed.
Makes you think, doesn't it? The American economy is leaking all right, but where is our dry dock? And should we, in fact, be accusing U.S. financial institutions of committing crimes?
The most common slang usage of the word "bail" only makes it worse. To bail means to leave a place or abandon a project or a person. No doubt we all want to get out of the current economic situation as quickly as possible. But who or what might we be abandoning in order to do so?
Euphemistic, and outright deceptive, names have helped bills to pass before. Maybe calling Paulson's proposal a "recapitalization plan" will win votes.
But it's going to take more than a good brand name to get us out of this one.
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