Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Word of the year: “bailout”

What does it mean to “bail out” a business or a country?

Italy is going to get a financial bail-out from the taxpayers of the rest of the world. A lot of that will come from countries that have managed to stay out of financial trouble, but a lot will also come from taxpayers in countries that are facing their own financial challenges, including unemployment and government austerity measures.

Just days ago, Greece’s bailout was settled—although it’s still uncertain that the Greeks will accept it and avert worldwide financial chaos. Portugal and Ireland have received bailouts recently.

Three years ago, taxpayers in Canada, the US and elsewhere bailed out automotive manufacturers, at the same time that the whole world, it seemed, had to bail out the banks and other financial companies. And what did taxpayers, the source of all this money, get in return? Job security? Housing security?


We seem to be caught in a never-ending cycle of crises and bailouts that spark more crises. We taxpayers have to bail out these companies, and now whole countries, because not doing so would cause the end of the economic universe we now inhabit, according to the powers that be.

(It’s interesting that the men—and it’s overwhelmingly men—who warn about doom and make the decisions never suffer from the chaos they preach. But that’s the subject of a whole different series of posts, or probably more fitting, a completely different blog. Or may a movement that would involve occupying public spaces near stock exchanges ...)

The different meanings of “bail”

The current usage refers simply to “rescuing,” but it comes from a different source. Which one applies most closely to this situation?

  • “Bailing out” means parachuting from a doomed plane. But that doesn’t fit—we are not getting out of failing economies, but getting more committed to them by pouring resources into them.
  • It can also mean scooping water out of a sinking ship—this is closer, but what we’re doing is putting something INTO the economy, so that doesn’t fit, either. 
  • “To bail out” means to pay money to get out of jail pending trial—this may be the closest meaning to the current situation, but it raises questions: will there be a trial? Of whom? 
  • According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, “bail” also refers to detaining with intent to rob. Is that what the financial elite is doing to Greece, Italy and other countries? What are the strings attached to the rescue plans?
Which image comes to your mind when you read “bailout” of a failing economy: a falling plane, a sinking ship, getting out of jail or robbery?

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