Understanding Political Codewords

The Financial Times is blessed with an intelligent and incisive editor and columnist, Gillian Tett.  But, like any opinionated columnist, she doesn’t always get it right. 

In a recent column about how Rhode Island is facing up to near-bankrupt municipal governments and pension systems, Ms.Tett reflected accurately an attitude in the business/financial class that needs to be called out.  She praises leaders who focus on pension "sustainability.”  She excoriates leaders who focus on "fairness.” 

The unexamined assumptions in both are at the heart of a national debate about how to get out of our current fiscal mess.  By "sustainability" Ms. Tett means reduced pensions benefits for public workers.  By "fairness" she means the complaint of some that reductions in the tax burden for the wealthy should be part of the solution.

Sustainability and fairness become code words for competing economic and social vision which can only be evaluated if they’re talked about honestly. 

It may be that we cannot afford pension benefits at the existing level.  But to abandon even a conversation about how we should share the burden of public service is to do a great disservice to American values.  Her column and my response to it shed some light on how, in the financial class these unexamined assumptions are dangerous.