Forgive me for saying this, but thank the Lord for the bailout. Finally, after two interminable years, something has pushed the election to the backburner. Just in time, too. I was beginning to run short of incredulity, cynicism, and contempt. But rather than get into any sort of substantive discussion of the bailout, let’s take a moment to examine the term itself.
Depending on your reference, the origins of the term can go back as far as the 14th century. Spellings vary depending on what side of the pond you hail from, but the meanings are similar. Originally derived from the French word for bucket, to bail out (or bale out) is to ladle water, as from a boat. Later meanings include buying a person’s liberty from incarceration, and leaping from an airplane (ideally with a parachute, itself seemingly the bale). According to Webster, it’s not until the 1950s that the term, now consolidated into a single word, is used to describe a financial rescue.
My motivation behind a close examination of the term, besides my desire to establish myself as a would be William Safire, derives from my basic discomfort with its use in the current context.
In my previous life as a teacher, I spent many hours explaining the difference between denotative and connotative definitions. Briefly, a word’s denotative meaning is its actual, dictionary definition. Its connotative meaning encompasses all the subtleties of use, interpretation and, perhaps most importantly in our current political and social climate, spin. As I explained it to my students, in a world where fewer and fewer people actually know the denotative meanings of many of the words they use on a regular basis, the connotative meanings take on added significance. ( By way of example, consider the word ignorant, which denotatively means without knowledge, but whose connotation is so negative as to make the word an insult.)
In the early days of the current economic downturn, there was much discussion, and an equal amount of hand wringing, over whether or not we were actually in a recession. Pundits pontificated on both sides of the debate, and we were treated to a parade of alternate terms that were not quite so depressing: correction, downturn, slowdown, and of course, stagflation. Finally, realizing the time had come for him to face our financial flaccidity head on, our illustrious leader, in a valiant effort to stiffen our economic resolve, proposed a stimulus package. Just listen to it: stimulus. It evokes feelings of activity, stimulation, even virility. It is unquestionably a positive term, and I’m sure the presidential spin doctors had every hope that the positive connotations alone would be the cure for our economic impotence. Sadly it was not to be.
Interestingly enough, like someone who had “never had this happen before,” he kept waiting for the stimulus to work, seemingly saying, “just give it a minute – it’ll come back.” Of course, as we all know, it only got worse (not that I’ve ever had that happen before). Which brings us to our current predicament.
Yes, times are tough, tougher than most anyone alive can remember. Yet with all of Congress, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve on the case, I felt sure somebody would come up with something. Not a solution (because you can’t really solve a problem you don’t understand) but at the very least a proposal, a platform, a word whose connotation would be at least as inspiring as the stimulus. I thought long and hard on our current deficiencies and assumed that at the very least we would be in line for an enhancement. Perhaps, given the dire nature of things, the do or die situation we find ourselves in, it might be serious enough for Paulson to call for an augmentation. But no, faced with the specter of a calamitous collapse, when what he needed to do was choose a word whose connotation would inspire confidence and determination, Paulson gave us the bailout.
Just listen to it: bailout. Not exactly inspirational, is it? No matter which meaning you choose, we’re fucked.
We’re in jail. We’re facing the gallows or worse. Our bail is a paltry 700 billion. But check it out. Lucky US. Our doddering old Uncle Sam comes along to bail us out. But we still have to face the charges, or go on the lam and lose the bail money.
We’re in a plane. The pilots are dead. We’re on autopilot and running out of fuel. We’re going down. Nothing to do but bail out. But even if the chute opens and even if we don’t land in a tree or in shark-infested waters or in a fucking volcano we’re still in the middle of nowhere without a way home.
Finally, the one that I truly think is the most apropos: we’re in a boat in the middle of the ocean. We’re taking on water. There’s only one certainty and it’s that we’re going to sink. What to do? Let’s start bailing out, not because it will save us, but because it beats sitting here doing nothing, and at least gives the illusion of taking meaningful action.
So there you have it, and it ain’t pretty. We’re in a world of hurt, that sound you hear is shit hitting the fan, and the best all the assembled minds of our elected and appointed representatives can come up with is to try to save the sinking ship with a bucket. We’re going down and all we’ve got going for us is the bailout. It’s the financial equivalent of an ultimate team naming itself after an ocean liner that sank in the worst maritime disaster in history.
And we all know how that story ended.