‘Tis the season to look back on the year past, reflect on lessons learned and resolve to change errant ways. In the world of public-policy debates, my hope is that we can all try to avoid meaningless and often politically coded cliches. Here are my suggestions for phrases whose only purpose is to convey a wink and a nod to those with whom we already agree and a self-aggrandizing chest bump to those with whom we disagree. To those more interested in light than heat, let’s agree to eliminate the following.

• “Job-killing regulations.” All regulations will eliminate some jobs somewhere and create the need for other jobs somewhere else; otherwise, what’s the point? The fundamental basis of our free-enterprise economic system, indeed of our civilization, is regulation, starting with “thou shalt not kill,” “thou shalt not steal” and “all are equal before the law.” We need regulations. And changes in technological, scientific and moral understanding create the need for new regulations. What we need is understand these reasons and assess their intended benefits and their likely costs, both before we enact them and periodically after enactment, after we have had real-world experience with their effects. There is no clear set of “job-killing” regulations, any more than there is another set that doesn’t kill jobs. To call any regulation “job-killing” is gratuitous and pointless. The point should be, let’s get a clear look at the consequences of all regulations and weigh them carefully … and regularly.

• “Fighting for working families.” Long ago, I made a campaign promise to myself. Never, I said, would I cast a vote for someone who promised, if elected, “to fight” for “working families,” for “non-working families” or for anyone or anything else. The very last thing we need in our government is more people promising to fight. The world is awash in people all too eager “to fight,” really fight, with all the barbarity that implies. What we need is people who promise, if elected, to govern, with all the interpersonal difficulty that implies. I will always remember a chamber of commerce meeting during the debate surrounding the proposed South Portland pipeline ordinance when a representative of Irving Oil stood up and said, “My employer’s name is not a hand grenade!” The self-righteous indignation with which some spit out personalized epithets – be it “welfare cheats” or “the Koch brothers” – as if whatever meaning the phrase carries for them is both universal and self-evident, serves no useful purpose in public-policy debates. Such “fighting” is more akin to the ignorant hotheads who turn demonstrations intended to call attention to problems into riots that impede progress by creating new problems. No, please, we don’t need more promises to fight.

• “Tax reform.” Tax reform is like the old saw about soccer in the U.S. – it’s the game of the future, and it always will be. Promises to “address serious tax reform” come up every spring like weeds. And just as surely, they’re dug and rooted and chemically blasted out. It seems hopeless. There are just too many people and groups too attached to some codicil or another of our vast array of taxes, fees, surcharges, etc., to ever make significant change. All we seem to be able to do is make additions to the monstrosity. I once did an analysis of the sources of total personal income and discovered that more than half of the total is excluded from the base on which federal personal income tax is calculated, a fact that makes debate about rates largely a diversion.

Let’s, therefore, resolve to replace the phrase “tax reform” with “tax simplification.” If we can’t “re-form” what’s already there, let’s simplify it. Let’s employ a few coders and freshman composition teachers and apply the wonders of big-data to analyze the complexity of language in the tax code and make it easier to understand. Let’s say, “No additional words may be added to the tax code without an equivalent number being removed.” Forget the budget cap, let’s enact a tax code word cap.

And above all, let’s resolve this year to give words their due. Let’s use them not as the lazy person’s way to avoid thinking, but as the curious person’s way to begin thinking.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]