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Fiscal policy and the importance of word choice

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

(Read caption) A stack of Dictionaries of American Regional English, volume V: SI-Z, sit atop a desk during a press conference in Washington earlier this month. Marron argues that the words used to describe an economic policy may be justy as important as the policy itself.

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Rhetoric matters in economic policy debates. Would allowing people to purchase health insurance from the federal government be a public option, a government plan, or a public plan? Would investment accounts in Social Security be private accounts, personal accounts, or individual accounts? (See my post on the rule of three.) Are tax breaks really tax cuts or spending in disguise? Is the tax levied on the assets of the recently departed an estate tax or a death tax?

In an excellent piece in the New York TimesEduardo Porter describes another important example, how we characterize differences in income:

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Alan Krueger, Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, offers a telling illustration of the changing views on income inequality. In the 1990s he preferred to call it “dispersion,” which stripped it of a negative connotation.

 In 2003, in an essay called “Inequality, Too Much of a Good Thing” Mr. Krueger proposed that “societies must strike a balance between the beneficial incentive effects of inequality and the harmful welfare-decreasing effects of inequality.” Last January he took another step: “the rise in income dispersion — along so many dimensions — has gotten to be so high, that I now think that inequality is a more appropriate term.”