Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw |

Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

You know what the real problem is when it comes to solving America’s budget crisis?

Reading comprehension.

Yes, reading comprehension.

Let me explain. (I’ll write slowly. That’ll make it easier to understand.)

In all the huffing and puffing about slashing the budget, one point that keeps getting raised and then immediately ignored is that all of the cutting that is being huffed and puffed about is pointless.

It’s pointless because, no matter how much money you take away from educating our children, or from helping poor people who can’t afford to heat their homes, you can’t make even a tiny dent in our grand and glorious deficit.

That’s because the money we spend on those poor people who sit shivering in the dark while their kids don’t learn to read – or the money we spend fixing our crumbling highways and collapsing bridges, or even the money we spend helping other nations around the planet – doesn’t amount to (if I may use a technical term) diddly.

Or, to be more specific, diddly-squat.

Sure, the numbers seem big – billions and billions of dollars – but in comparison to the real budget problem, it’s almost irrelevant.

And that’s where we run into the reading comprehension problem (or, since so few people actually read these days, allow me to make that reading and listening comprehension).

Every time the wise men (and women) on the TV mention how the proposed budget cuts are trivial, they use the following words: “discretionary domestic spending.”

“We can’t balance the budget by cutting discretionary domestic spending,” they say. “Discretionary domestic spending only amounts to one-sixth of the budget.”

They’re right, of course.

The problem is, most people (not you, of course, dear reader – you read The Aspen Times. You’re well educated. Literate and all that) don’t have any idea what the hell “discretionary domestic spending” means.

And if they don’t understand it, it just turns into noise – “blah, blah, blah” – and they stop listening.

“Spending” they understand, of course. It’s the average American’s field of expertise.

But “discretionary domestic”? Sorry, but most Americans have no idea what the hell that means.

“Domestic” probably reminds them of the time their cousin Bernie got arrested for slapping his wife around. “Domestic violence” they called that when they dragged Bernie off to the clink – although Bernie insisted she had it coming, so who knows? Anyway, OK, “domestic” has something to do with your wife nagging you and the cops coming around when she starts screaming. Got it.

But “discretionary”? Hell, no one has any idea what that means. That’s one of those college words.

So every time some TV guy with important hair says, “We can’t solve our budget problems by cutting discretionary domestic spending,” that statement goes in one public ear and out the other. Without striking even the slightest spark of comprehension on the way through.

It’s just blah, blah, blah from here to eternity.

And the mob continues to demand that we cut education and highway maintenance and stop supporting poor people who can’t pay their heating bills.

Yeah, that’s the ticket! Uneducated people with frostbite, driving on highways cratered with potholes. That’s the sign of a great nation – a nation on its way back to prosperity!

We have, in fact, a lot of comprehension problems when it comes to the news.

How many times have you heard some news guy (or gal) talk about the president using “the bully pulpit.”

Do you think the average listener – or most of those news guys and gals – have any idea what “bully pulpit” means?

The way most of them use that phrase, I get the impression that they think a “bully pulpit” is something a bully stands on (probably for more leverage when he’s dipping his victim’s head in the toilet to administer a “swirly”).

In fact, the “bully” in bully pulpit has nothing to do with that mouth-breathing thug who used to steal your lunch money.

The phrase was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who said the presidency was a “bully pulpit” – and by “bully” he meant “swell” or “great.” A great platform from which to get his message across. It’s a British term and, anglophile that he was, Roosevelt might just as easily have said “jolly good pulpit,” which means pretty much the same thing.

And which would have been forgotten immediately.

Or, how about “third rail.”

You hear that a lot too. Newscasters and wise men toss it in all the time.

“Oh, well, yes. Medicare. That’s a third rail, you know.”

How many of them know that the real “third rail” is the high-voltage electric line that runs alongside the railroad tracks to provide power for the trains?

A true third rail – pretty uncommon these days – ran right at ground level, alongside the two steel rails that the train ran on. Those third rails were extraordinarily dangerous to anyone carelessly crossing the tracks. The voltage was so high that if you touched the third rail you would be instantly electrocuted.

And that’s the origin of the phrase as part of political discussion. It was first used to refer to Social Security, the “third rail” of American politics: “You touch it, you die.”

So: third rail, bully pulpit, discretionary domestic spending.

To the American mob, to the Tea Partiers in their tri-cornered hats and misspelled signs, it’s all just “blah, blah, blah.”

Someone says, “We can’t fix the deficit by just cutting discretionary domestic spending. And cutting education saves a little money in the short term, but hurts the nation and increases our problems in the long run. To really solve our problems, we have to cut entitlements. Like Medicare.”

And they hear “can’t fix the deficit blah, blah, blah cut Medicare.”

And they start singing “Yankee Doodle,” and screaming “We want our country back,” and “Keep the government out of my Medicare” and waving their copies of the Constitution – which they can’t understand either, because it uses lots of big words.

And, oh yeah, by the way, what the heck does “entitlement” mean?