10:18am

Thu March 24, 2011
Opinion

'We're Broke': Empty Bank Accounts, Empty Meaning?

Geoff Nunberg is the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He is the author of the book, The Way We Talk Now.

The word "economics" comes from the Greek word for "home," and originally referred to the art of household management. It hasn't meant that for some centuries, of course. But people are still drawn to describing the affairs of government in homey terms. Take "we're broke," which Republican governors and legislators have made their mantra to justify cuts in government programs and services — and none so insistently as John Boehner, who has been pleading the B-word for years, long before the B-word was cool.

That claim that "we're broke" puts some people in a lather. A recent New York Times editorial called it "obfuscating nonsense." No states are going to go bankrupt, it said, and a country with a big deficit is no more broke than a family with a college loan. E.J. Dionne called it a "phony metaphor." And a Bloomberg article observed that you can't call a country broke when investors all over the world are lining up to lend it money for less than a 1 percent return.

In response, though, a spokesman for Boehner said that a family is broke if they keep spending more than they're making. And who's to say that sort of definition is wrong? It isn't as if broke is a precise term like insolvent. And Republicans aren't the only ones who have found the word a handy label for government deficits. The New York Times' editorial qualms haven't deterred the paper from running headlines like "California, Almost Broke, Nears Brink." And even Jon Stewart said not long ago that "the country is broke," though he laid the blame on the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

On the other hand, if the definition of broke is so loose, why go there in the first place? The Times called the word a "scare tactic." And the word certainly can raise specters of bailiffs and breadlines and seems to come up a lot in the scenarios of imminent financial catastrophe in ads for vendors of gold coins and bullion.

But broke can convey things other than fear, too. It comes from an old use of break to mean "impoverish," and suggests an abiding association between destitution and destruction, the same connection that gives us wiped out and busted, not to mention the -rupt of bankrupt, which came from the Italian for broken bank. The Victorians said all to smash, or more politely, ruined, which could suggest financial, moral, or social degradation, or sometimes all three together — as when a character in Thackeray's Vanity Fair says, "A countess living at an inn is a ruined woman."

In fact broke and its synonyms can convey those same overtones of shame and disgrace, which is why we say somebody who has gone broke is "financially embarrassed." You can be born poor, but nobody's born broke: it's a calamity that happens to you through ill fortune or improvidence. But one way or the other, broke implies helplessness: as Ray Charles put it in "I'm Busted," "There ain't a thing I can do." It brings to mind the little Monopoly man on the "bankruptcy" Chance card, with his pockets turned out and his palms and shoulders raised in a plaintive shrug. That's what can make "we're broke" a self-absolving way of closing down a discussion, whether it comes from a parent or a politician. "What part of 'we're broke' do you not understand?"

Well, since I asked — it's the first part, actually. I get where broke is going, but I have some questions about that we. In my experience, people work more sleight of hand with that little pronoun than any other word in the American political lexicon. Who exactly is the "we" on whom all that helplessness and humiliation of being broke have been visited? Who could it be but the American people, or the people of New Jersey, Wisconsin or wherever? But if that's right, the statement's puzzling. It isn't as if the whole country has been beggared or the American economy has collapsed. There's a lot of money around in the aggregate, even if it's not spread around evenly and there are places where the floorboards show through.

This is where the pronoun gets tricky. We doesn't always mean "you and I and the others." Thanks to the semantic operation called metonymy, the word can jump from one thing to something else that's connected with it. When I say "We're parked out back," I don't mean me and my wife, I mean our car. And when the president of the Pep club shakes the tin where the cookie money's kept and says "we're almost broke," she doesn't mean that the members are all out of money, just the club's coffers.

And that's pretty much what John Boehner and Jon Stewart mean when they say we're broke. Call it stealth metonymy. We're not broke, no more than we're parked out back — it's only the cookie fund. And that isn't the helpless, mortifying kind of broke that can descend on a family with nowhere to turn. We either get some people to kick in a few more bucks, or we spend the rest of the school year eating saltines. But whether it's the Pep club or the Federal government, that's a question of politics — not household management. And while you could describe the situation by saying "we're broke," that doesn't really move the conversation along. It's the pronoun that's the problem: things would be clearer if we were left out of it. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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