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Talkin’ about ‘reform’: Is it time to put on the brakes?

Walker Lundy, an editor I once worked for at the Pioneer Press, one day issued an edict that has gained much credibility over the years. Avoid the use of the word “reform” in stories, he told his staff.

That was in the 1990s. Today, Lundy notes, “reform” weighs more heavily in the air. Thus its once-respectable meaning continues to deteriorate. Think about how many times you’ve read or heard about education reform (also known as school reform or teacher reform), tax reform, health-care reform, immigration reform, financial reform, regulatory reform, campaign-finance reform, tort reform, criminal justice reform — have I missed any? Yes, probably hundreds of them. Far more often than not, these supposed reforms turn out to be slim to none when measured against the pie-in-the-sky claims of the self-described reformers.

I turned to professor Anatoly Liberman, a linguist at the University of Minnesota, for his thoughts on the omnipresence of the R word. Liberman has made a side career out of monitoring and critiquing pop words as they rise and fall in American culture. He quickly confirmed my suspicion.

” ‘Reform’ sounds grandiloquent,” Liberman said. “When tremendous change happened in the history of so many countries, it was usually called reform.” The word once stirred up of a sense of religious and societal greatness, he explained, but now it is becoming a cliché — “a buzzword. When you have little to say, it’s good to couch your thoughts in important terms.”

Hyping to cut through the noise

Today, the noise in the media, on the Internet and at speaking events leads advocates of various causes to embrace such words in order to crash through the din. As Liberman puts it, “the greater the competition, the louder you shout. That is why we have become a society of overstatement. The system favors this type of language.”

Reform joins a long list of contemporary buzzwords. A few of Liberman’s other nominations this year: “robust,” “transparent” and a few that have been out there for a while: “cool,” “awesome” and, of course, “totally awesome.”

But Liberman finds something special about the R-word. All too often, he says, its heavy use signals the triumph of special-interest groups over the common good.

Given my curiosity about the omnipresence of this word, I did a few searches. They found frequent use of this word had continued in the Twin Cities dailies, without a great increase over the past couple of decades. But recent use of “reform” to describe changes — real or proposed — in health-care insurance, taxation, financial regulation and immigration — has been frequent. The Star Tribune mentioned this word 11,518 times from the start of 1986 through Nov. 26 (an average of 1.1 times per day). The Pioneer Press, spurning the advice of its now-retired editor, used it 16,033 times from the start of 1988 through Nov. 26 (1.6 times per day). By my count, MinnPost cited “reform” 443 times just this year through November (1.4 times per day). By the way, these mentions are needles in the haystacks of the today’s 24/7 digital world.

Role of spin 

To be fair, editors at the dailies and MinnPost are limited in their capacity to cut back on the R word. In October, when GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson took up the Star Tribune’s offer of space for his views, he used the word four times in a single paragraph. Opportunistic public-relations counselors long ago caught on to the benefits of advising clients to slip “reform” into their formal names.

But sometimes, opinion-shapers at prominent news organizations deliberately invoke the word for their pet causes. Take, for instance, the op-ed the Wall Street Journal published the day after last month’s mid-term elections. The piece was written by Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. John Boehner, the GOP leaders in the Senate and House respectively. “Now We Can Get Congress Going,” the headline proclaimed. Below that, a smaller headline declared: “Reform the tax code …” Rest assured that The Journal’s editorial stance and the views of GOP leaders differ considerably from those of, say, New York Times editorialists and Democratic leaders about what constitutes “tax reform.”

The GOP is not alone in hijacking the use of this word to hammer home its messages. Many Democrats have consistently labeled their complex immigration, health-care, taxation and financial-sector legislative packages as “reforms.” Yet recent history suggests that even when such proposals finally get enacted, they end up riddled with compromises that water down the impact of the changes.

Why so many ‘reforms’ don’t happen

The existence of this complexity should come as no surprise. The late Mancur Olson, a famed economist with common-sense roots in Minnesota and North Dakota, devoted much of his life to exploring the nature of this condition. Olson’s theory, which he laid out in his 1982 book, “The Rise and Decline of Nations”: the thicker a country’s networks of interest groups, the more clogged its economic and political arteries. That perspective has been smack dab on the money. The mushrooming growth of lobbyists, campaign donors, consultants and assorted spinmeisters goes a long way in explaining why true reforms, in the best sense of the word, have become so difficult to bring off.

What more modest words might be employed to describe the honest efforts of so many well-intentioned individuals and groups to enhance the performance of government, business, nonprofits or other organizations? Liberman suggests two: “improve” and “change.” I would add a third: “overhaul.”

Walker Lundy’s admonishment to his staff did carry one caveat. He said it was OK to use the R word in a quote. But maybe that’s not so OK anymore, considering how interest groups are citing the word more frequently to drape their private agendas in the glow of the common good.

“Almost always,” says Lundy, “one person’s reform is another person’s outrage.” Perhaps that’s going too far the other way. Change often makes things better overall. But hey, all that said, Walker Lundy was onto something. 

Dave Beal, a longtime business columnist for the Pioneer Press and former business editor there, writes about business and the economy for MinnPost and other publications. Beal was business editor at the Milwaukee Journal before coming to the Twin Cities and is a past president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

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