So, yes, words matter, and they matter because they’re imbued with defined meaning. Words form our thoughts through their meaning. The more precise the meaning, the more insightful the thought.
Azure is a shade of blue, but not just any shade, it’s a specific, distinguishing shade. Azure is lighter than navy, its hue is distinct compared to aquamarine. I see azure when my thoughts drift to the Cote d’Azur in the South of France. I see aquamarine when they drift to Seven Mile Beach in Negril.
The imprecise writer or orator could have offered “blue,” a shade of its own, in reference to both bodies of water. He wouldn’t be wrong, but he would be imprecise. Neither azure nor aquamarine is that shade of “blue.” If one were sufficiently roguish, or more likely lazy, one could mislead to imprint that the Mediterranean off Nice and the Caribbean off Negril are like colors. Both are simply blue. The description is technically right, but precisionally wrong.
At the least, though, blue is a reality. Each of us might conjure our own shade upon hearing or reading the word: some might conjure the blue of the sky, some the home jerseys of the University of Michigan sports teams, others the reflected blue of Arctic ice. We are dealing within the same taxonomy. Even if imprecise, there is an honesty about the word because of a universally understood meaning.
Unfortunately (and so much of life is unfortunate), only a Liechtenstein-size slice of society demands precision of meaning from their words. With little effort, I can recite a list of them used in popular discourse that reside within a taxonomy, though a perverse one. They’re universally meaningless. These words permeate public discourse the way flatulence permeates a sports stadium lavatory: sustainable, democracy, science, justice, fair, service, environment, governance, change, social, phobia, inclusion, diversity, equality.
Ill-defined all, and yet instead of a curse, their ill-defineness is a blessing to propagandists and agenda drivers everywhere. These timeserving words provoke no revelatory thought; they do provoke emotion, and to provoke an emotion is to promote an agenda. We need to look no further than the first word on my ignoble list to understand the deception.
A corporate CEO boasts at full-throttle that his company’s business practices are indeed sustainable. The predictable politician running for office pumps his chest to secure his sinecure by asserting his “sustainability” bona fides. I’m sustainable, you’re sustainable, we’re all sustainable! Hurray! Cheers the programmed mind. The thought-provoking details, the facts supporting the assertions having been conveniently excised, and understandably so. Anger, empathy, outrage, disdain are more assured to arouse action and influence perception than an impartial spooling of facts.
Nothing happens by chance; there is a method behind the madness. The ill-defined word works because it has been manipulated to conjure an image that pricks an emotion. As for sustainable, the indiscriminate reader or listener will conjure a vague visage associated with a natural resource, possibly an industrial pollution-belching mine. An image appears of Aspen-covered mountainous earth being stripped and scarred by massive yellow machinery.
The more clever among the faithful concurrently conjure sustainable’s antonym – unsustainable – which they associate with greed, which, in turn, they associate with the earth strippers and scarrers. The extraction of everything to nil. The emotion of indignation follows.
Yes, mining is an ugly, dirty business. The ugliness of the image overrides the facts of importance. Your life would be a relative hell if it were not for the industrious capitalists’ ability to manipulate natural resources – dirt, for the most part, to the untrained eye -- into something of unquestionable value (the contraption on which you read this, for instance).
Why the indignation? This earth is no Faberge egg. If we fail to command it, it commands us. It will kill us if we fail to fight back. Man creates far more beauty than nature gives. Compare man’s landscaping of a tourist resort to nature’s haphazard landscaping of the nearby swamp. It’s no contest where the aesthetic beauty resides: symmetry that marvels the eye on the one side, chaos that repels it on the other.
What natural resources have we extracted to extinction? What’s unsustainable? Iron, cobalt, zinc, magnesia, aluminum, oil? I think not. On the contrary, the price (in real terms) of natural resources, of most commodities, has trended lower over the past century. The more we use, the more we find, the more efficient we are in our extractions and use. If anything, we simply abandon a natural resource if a more efficient resource (petroleum for whale oil, for instance) is introduced, usually through curiosity, invention, price signals. After all, we didn’t abandon the Stone Age for lack of stones. Why, then, should we abandon resources with demonstrable utility and demonstrable sustainability today for the bureaucrat's pretend utopia of tomorrow? We shouldn’t.
If that which is promoted as unsustainable is sustainable, perhaps that which is promoted as sustainable is unsustainable. Are endless subsidies, tax benefits, and guaranteed financing for politically correct questionably sustainable industries sustainable? The ability to tax, to inflate, to issue debt is finite, and more so when used to promote comparably inefficient industries (solar and wind, for instance) in hopes of toppling their proven, market-driven, more efficient counterparts (natural gas, coal, and nuclear).
Again, we’re presented with the unfortunate: Subsidies, taxes, inflation, and privileged conjure no emotion-provoking images for a reason. Their destructive force is imperceptible until an unknowable threshold is reached. When the bankrupt in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked how he went bankrupt, he replies, “Gradually, and then suddenly.” The same can be said of the harm government inflicts on the economy.
Goodness, I have broached only one word. The determined solipsistic agitator willing piles up mounds of the meaningless fodder to further obfuscate and promote. The environmental/social/governance (ESG) business movement is no more than the attempt to add substance to wind. It is a triptych of the meaningless.
What is the environment?
Unadulterated nature is the image likely conjured: majestic mountain tops, burbling streams of pure snow run-off, a harmless idyll of innocent, immature ruminant animals. It could be right, wrong, or nothing.
Images aside, reality dictates that the environment be manipulated to be hospitable to humans. That requires energy, and energy consumption produces externalities. The naive layperson (and the clever prevaricator) conflates externalities with the meaningless “carbon-footprint” or “carbon-neutral” or similar babbling. No one bothers to explain why carbon-based life forms are supposed to be carbon-neutral. Only the dead are truly carbon-neutral, and that’s questionable (What is the carbon footprint of a decaying body in the ground?)
Every benefit has a cost and vice versa, and yet this reality is rarely mentioned. Does human activity generate CO2? Yes. Is that a cost? Yes. Is that a benefit? Yes. Do the benefits exceed the cost? Yes. Look no further than the empirical evidence of living standards.
Our carbon effusions are a cost, to be sure, but the costs are less empirical, thus impossible to quantify accurately. We have only modeling, but the models are static for the most part (Columbia University’s Earth Institute’s claim of 83 million deaths by 2100 due to rising carbon is one of the more ridiculous extrapolating examples of static modeling). If the modeling proves correct (it won’t because it never does), the benefits would still exceed the costs. Humans are dynamic and adaptive. The cost to adapt is lower with higher benefits than the higher costs and lower benefits to mitigate. So, which is promoted?
The environment includes more than the great outdoors. All spaces, indoor and out, constitute the environment. Is it possible for landfills and garbage dumps to be environmentally friendly? Most environmentally sensitive persons will reflexively answer “no” without weighing the benefits and costs. No ESG propagandist will argue that landfills are more environmentally sound than the alternatives. And the alternatives? Simply tossing garbage out the window or piling it first in one room, then two, then three. Welcome to a world of no landfills, and welcome to the hoarder’s hovel – a cesspool of garbage, filth, and disease. No neutral logician would argue that concentrated, managed landfills are less environmentally desirable than the alternatives.
The pile of the meaningless continues. One must read to the third entry for Social at Merriam-Webster before even a hazy meaning is attempted. Says Merriam-Webster at the third entry, “of or relating to human society, the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society.” You tell me, I’ll tell you, and we are both right.
We prefer to organize to ensure comity and cooperation, but constituencies are frequently at cross purposes. Employers prefer to pay lower wages, employees prefer to be paid higher wages. Shareholders want to maximize their return on their invested capital, employees want to maximize their return on their labor. Civilized societies employ strategies to mitigate these schisms. Mutual respect, known rules of engagement, preset expectations can set the culture so all groups cooperate – everyone receives an agreed-to proportion of what he wants in order to remain onboard – to achieve the bottom-line goal of generating profits while achieving some sense of satisfaction for all involved.
Social segues into governance. A proper business is governed first to meet the shareholders’ needs – a required minimum return on invested capital. But to realize these needs, the business must also be governed to meet enough needs of customers so that they will buy the output, and to meet enough of the needs of the employees so that they will work productively to produce the output. Monopsony power is a fiction, existing only in economics textbooks. If an employer attracts too few workers at $20-an-hour, he will raise it to $25. If that fails to work, then to $30. If three weeks of annual vacation won’t do the trick, perhaps four weeks will. If the enterprises expenses are too high to earn the requisite return, there should be no business, no employees.
How can there be, then, a standard ESG formula? What it takes to construct an efficient, productive NFL team will unlikely construct an efficient, productive Starbucks employee team. If the culture is predicated on merit and defined standards and goals, then everything else follows. Race, creed, religion, sexual orientation are all non-starters, not even considerations if that person incorporates into the corporate culture and produces. Substance – profit – is the essence of any business. If no profit, no business. ESG is all style that can only impede substance. The optics matter, the results so much less with ESG.
We can go on with this, so I’ll go on.
Democracy is perceived as a good thing, and always a good thing. Even if you aren’t so good, you’re still keen to pinch the word to convey good tidings and cheer. And no one is keener to pinch than the despot. North Korea doesn’t officially stamp the “Democratic People's Republic of Korea” on the nation’s stationery only for irony’s sake. The most despotic regime no one remembers, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, thought they would pretty up their sanguinary doings by changing Cambodia’s name to Democratic Kampuchea.
Because democracy is always a good thing, we should encourage all to participate. The more the merrier, if you. Though on closer inspection, we find democracy is little more than the “pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance,” as Mencken observed a century ago. Mencken’s right, of course. Ask 80% of voters which way a demand curve slopes or to give the definition of opportunity cost and watch the mental gears grind to a halt, and yet when all the wrong-headed opinions are collected, they should coalesce into a wise economic policy the politicians implement?
Is it just? Is it fair? I hardly see the mob rule pure democracy engenders as just or fair. The two wolves will always vote for the sheep for dinner. There are more wolves than sheep. And the wolves, like the scorpion in the famous fable, can’t help themselves. It’s just their nature.
Exclusivity is needed to temper the bad nature of most voters. Proof of productivity is a good starting point – a job, a business, an investment portfolio, home ownership. Prove that you are a taxpayer before you are a tax receiver. If you disagree, perhaps an attentive stroll through any Walmart will prompt you to rethink your position on inclusiveness. It reinforces my position.
We can go on, but I won’t.