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Economic Meltdown Scapegoat #87: Jargon

It would be a huge stretch to blame our current economic troubles entirely on jargon, but it did play a part.

I’m thinking specifically about the mortgage bubble. I’ve brought three houses, and every time, I was overwhelmed by the unnecessarily cryptic language involved. The vast majority of people who buy and sell houses aren’t lawyers or mortgage brokers, yet all the paperwork seems designed to mystify any non-expert.

And of course, it partly is. If you can confuse somebody, it will be easier to talk them into giving you more money. The Truth in Lending Act requires lenders to provide the buyer with the terms of the loan, but, through the power of jargon, they can make that disclosure murky and intimidating. (If you’ve never been through the home-buying wringer, check out this glossary to see what I mean.)

In short, the baffling language of loans helped create an environment where many home buyers feel like they have no prayer of making sense of it all, so they just have to take an expert’s word for it. In most cases, the nearest experts are the mortgage broker and the real estate age, both of whom have (or rather, had) an economic incentive in buyers borrowing more money than is prudent.

You see similar problems in other industries. Crooked mechanics spew enough ominous car jargon that you just pay the bill to make it all go away. Mediocre programmers turn on the tech talk to explain away glitches to their non-techy clients and coworkers. Hurried doctors hurl perplexing medical terms to push you toward their preferred course of treatment.

Jargon isn’t inherently bad, of course. Among experts, it makes communication much more efficient. But more often than not, jargon that spills out into the world of non-experts is repressive. People use it as a tool to tip others off balance and make them feel small. And even if you’re not the devious sort, it’s easy to do this accidentally unless you check your jargon levels vigilantly.

(While on this subject of mortgages, let me be the zillionth explaining nerd to point to “The Giant Pool of Money” from This American Life)

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