No problem! There’s always more than one way to skin a cat.
For starters, instead of saying they are cutting spending, they can say they have “found savings”.
While “tax” and “levy” are pretty close in meaning – you’ll find them in the same entries in the thesaurus – the don’t inhabit exactly the same semantic territory.
“Tax” means “a burdensome charge, obligation, duty, or demand”. But to levy is to “raise a contribution for some purpose”.
Levies have been used in recent times in precisely this fashion – for specific purposes, which are almost universally endorsed. We have the Medicare Levy; and following the terrible Queensland floods, the government introduced a flood levy.
Recently, the Prime Minister announced she will seek an increase in the Medicare Levy to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme if re-elected.
So “levy” and “tax” are very close, but you’d be an idiot to think they are interchangeable. And since, as J.R. Firth used to say, “we know a word by the company it keeps”, then consider the fact that we have a thing called “the tax man”, but we don’t even have “a levy man”, much less “the levy man”.
“Tax” has a got very negative connotations. Opposing taxes takes no courage whatsoever.
But you want to be pretty careful about opposing a levy. Here’s what happened to the last guy who publicly criticized the proposed levy to fund the NDIS.
In the right hands, language is not a bludgeon, it’s a rapier – as the great American linguist (sorry, not Chomsky – he doesn’t have anything to say on language, power and politics) B.L. Whorf said. If words are your business, you should be taking the trouble to find exactly the right one for your needs.
This brings me to the recent announcement ahead of the coming budget of cuts to university funding, the wording of which really hurt my ears.
First of all, the government ran a mile from the words “we” “are cutting” “university funding”. The press release put it this way:
Today the Government announced savings in the higher education portfolio that will contribute to the funding of school education reforms designed to ensure that all Australian school children get a flying start in life.
There you go. “Savings” not “cuts”, and “savings” that will “contribute” to Aussie kids getting a flying start. Who could object?
The Minister announced the “measures” in bullet points – a great way to ensure maximal distance, grammatically, between the actual people doing things, and the things that they are going to do.
So, rather than man up and say “we are imposing an “efficiency dividend” on Australian universities”, Emerson’s press release went:
“the measures are:
· An efficiency dividend for university funding, of 2 per cent in 2014 and 1.25 per cent in 2015 …” etc
A small digression here for my very brave Grammar and Meaning students in second year – the Minister avoided the action verb “impose” (viz. “we are imposing …”) and used the very impersonal relational verb “are” (viz. “the measures are …”). That’s pretty clever stuff.
What about his choice of preposition? Instead of “An efficiency dividend on university funding” – which would have the whiff of an imposition - he announced that the dividend was for university funding, as if it is something being done on our behalf. Grr!
And now to “efficiency dividend”. Here’s what the google book corpus (of 350 billion words) can tell us about the use of the term:
How can a word that means “divide” or “share” - “dividend” and “divide” clearly have a common ancestor – now be used to describe a cut in funding?
Since a dividend is “a sum of money to be divided among a number of persons”, by rights, an “efficiency dividend” would mean money shared among those who have generated it by working more efficiently.
This is, indeed, its original meaning. The blip around the 1920s comes from books describing financial incentives for workers to work more efficiently. An efficiency dividend was originally a means of profit sharing.
In its 1980s reincarnation, it became a way of obscuring cuts to the public sector. So workers generated the funds by working more efficiently, and so the money was taken away.
The Centre for Policy Development have described the efficiency dividend as “a blunt instrument that does not achieve its stated aim of increasing efficiency across the public service”.
So an efficiency dividend does not increase efficiency, and its not actually a dividend.
It’s just dumb cuts.
This column was originally published by the NTEU here.