We see useful current examples of this at home and abroad.
The first is the word “charter,” as in charter schools. I’ve made this point before, but I want to re-emphasize it: Charter is a giant word; it contains multitudes.
Lakeland Montessori, the Lake Wales charter district, and the McKeel empire are very different from one another — from size to focus to marketing. We do ourselves a disservice by describing them under a single nebulous term. And there are many, many other charter schools — some affiliated with the School District, some independent. I’ve tried to use “predatory” charter in describing McKeel and its imitators, who aim to grow explosively by marketing themselves as publicly-funded private schools. That distinguishes that model from the more static models. But even that qualifier is limited.
So it’s important to remember that any time you read the phrase, “Charters are…”, you are being misled, even if it’s unintentional. I would prefer that we refer to schools by wealth and/or special characteristics of their enrollments. That is a schools’s single most predictive indicator — in terms of test score. “Wealthy schools are…” is a much better, if still imprecise, shorthand for what to expect from attending a school or judging its performance. The differences between student bodies are far more significant and predictive than differences in method or governance.
In a similar way, the ongoing economic/political mess in “Europe” is often obscured by the use of the word “Europe” in describing it.
The shorthand that ill-informed or ill-intended people use is that the “European” model of social democracy can’t support itself, etc., etc. If I were political conservative, I would probably use that argument, too.
But it’s not true. In fact, Germany and the Netherlands, those bastions of socialized medicine and “European” social welfare — with powerful roles for unions and public employees in their economies — have unemployment rates of 5.5 and 4.9 percent, respectively. We entrepreneurial insurance-sacrificing commerce lovers in the U.S. have an 8.3 percent rate. How can that be? We all know that socialized medicine and strong unions kill economies, or something.
In fact, the European crisis has far more to do with cramming independent countries, independent political entities, far less developed than Germany and Holland — i.e. Greece, Ireland — together with those giants under a single unified currency. Anywhere else in the world, Greece and Ireland would deflate their currency, make their goods and services cheaper, and begin to grow. That’s how Iceland and Argentina righted themselves after their great crises. Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc. can’t do that because they use the same Euro that Germany does.
Now, the European monetary crisis carries its own legitimate conservative critique, one that distrusts technocracy and understands the perils of halfwayism in empowering central authority. I have some sympathy to this critique. Alas, there are no “conservatives,” with the possible exception of Ron Paul, to make it. They’re too busy forcing vaginal ultrasounds and wishing it was 1907.
It’s not 1907. But precision in language remains as vital to good policy — and as elusive — as it was then.