Farewell. The Flying Pig Has Left The Building.

Steve Hynd, August 16, 2012

After four years on the Typepad site, eight years total blogging, Newshoggers is closing it's doors today. We've been coasting the last year or so, with many of us moving on to bigger projects (Hey, Eric!) or simply running out of blogging enthusiasm, and it's time to give the old flying pig a rest.

We've done okay over those eight years, although never being quite PC enough to gain wider acceptance from the partisan "party right or wrong" crowds. We like to think we moved political conversations a little, on the ever-present wish to rush to war with Iran, on the need for a real Left that isn't licking corporatist Dem boots every cycle, on America's foreign misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. We like to think we made a small difference while writing under that flying pig banner. We did pretty good for a bunch with no ties to big-party apparatuses or think tanks.

Those eight years of blogging will still exist. Because we're ending this typepad account, we've been archiving the typepad blog here. And the original blogger archive is still here. There will still be new content from the old 'hoggers crew too. Ron writes for The Moderate Voice, I post at The Agonist and Eric Martin's lucid foreign policy thoughts can be read at Democracy Arsenal.

I'd like to thank all our regular commenters, readers and the other bloggers who regularly linked to our posts over the years to agree or disagree. You all made writing for 'hoggers an amazingly fun and stimulating experience.

Thank you very much.

Note: This is an archive copy of Newshoggers. Most of the pictures are gone but the words are all here. There may be some occasional new content, John may do some posts and Ron will cross post some of his contributions to The Moderate Voice so check back.


Monday, May 21, 2012

It's Not Your Imagination -- Congress Really IS Dumbing Down

By John Ballard

Several years ago at a continuing education course in Gerontology I first became aware of the Flesch-Kinkaid readability index. Simply stated, it is a tool used to measure the reading level of communication in terms of grade level. I used it to make sure a booklet I was writing would be easy for anyone to read and understand. At the time I was pleased to learn that the version of Microsoft Word to which I had access had the Flesch-Kinkaid tool which enabled me to score anything I wrote. 

As the Republican primaries ground on I, along with many others I'm sure, was struck with what seemed to be a serious deterioration of language. Gone were the eloquent phrases with which political types once embellished their rhetoric, often to a sickening extent. In place of those lofty, often meaningless phrases and images, replaced by equally meaningless phrases and images, but in language that even a child might understand. No longer did the listener need to imagine the speaker surely couldn't really be that ignorant. Instead it became transparently cldear that the content really was a pile of vaccuous, steaming stupidity. 

Today we now have documentary evidence that we were not dreaming. 

Congress now speaks at almost a full grade level lower than it did just seven years ago, with the most conservative members of Congress speaking on average at the lowest grade level, according to a new Sunlight Foundation analysis of the Congressional Record using Capitol Words.

Of course, what some might interpret as a dumbing down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications. And lawmakers of both parties still speak above the heads of the average American, who reads at between an 8th and 9th grade level.

Today�s Congress speaks at about a 10.6 grade level, down from 11.5 in 2005. By comparison, the

  • U.S. Constitution is written at a 17.8 grade level, 

  • the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 grade level, and 

  • the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level. 

  • The Gettysburg Address comes in at an 11.2 grade level and 

  • Martin Luther King�s �I Have a Dream� speech is at a 9.4 grade level. 

  • Most major newspapers are written at between an 11th and 14th grade level. (You can find more comparisons here)

All these analyses use the Flesch-Kincaid test, which produces the 'reads at a n-th grade level' terminology that is likely familiar to many readers. At its core, Flesch-Kincaid equates higher grade levels with longer words and longer sentences. It is important to understand the limitations of this metric: it tells us nothing about the clarity or correctness of a passage of text. But although an admittedly crude tool, Flesch-Kincaid can nonetheless provide insights into how different legislators speak, and how Congressional speech has been changing.


636_011912_FX_dunce[1]Earlier this year, the University of Minnesota�s Smart Politics noted that Obama�s 2012 State of the Union address clocked in at an eighth-grade level for the third year in a row, and that Obama�s average grade level of 8.4 was well below the average of 10.7 for the previous 67 addresses. Fox News ran the story alongside the image of a child in a dunce cap, and right-wing blogs mocked the President�s intelligence.

Others pointed out that maybe speaking clearly was a good thing. After all, the SOTU speech was pretty much right at the level of the average American�s reading level. And writing gurus like George Orwell (�If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out�) and Strunk & White (�omit needless words�) famously advise simplicity.

But whether you see it as plain speak or you see it as a dumbing down, the data are clear: The overall complexity of speech in the Congressional Record has dropped almost a full grade level since 2005. And those on the political extremes, especially those on the far right, tend to be associated with the most simple speech patterns.



  1. I think this is just a reflection of the US population in general. A local TV station here just got several new young reporters. Their English is terrible.

  2. I'm sure you're right. Texting and Facebook are coming home to roost.

  3. Interesting, reminded my of reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death - circa 1985. A snippet from Chapter 4 regarding the Lincoln Douglas debates - there were 7 of them I think. Each lasting, I believe, more than 6 hours.
    The first debate was in Ottowa Illinois on August 21, 1858 and Postman notes:
    In Douglas' Ottowa speech he included in his one-hour address three long, legally phrased resolutions of the Abolition platform. Lincoln, in his reply, read even longer passages from a published speech he had delivered on a previous occasion. For all of Lincoln's celebrated economy of style, his sentence structure in the debates was intricate and subtle, as was Douglas'. In the second debate, at Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln rose to answer Douglas in the following words:
    �It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.�
    Postman noted [the POTUS at the time was old Ronny]: "It is hard to imagine the present occupant of the White House being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience."
    Hmm what even to say, eh. But I will say I just love Lincoln's reply. Incidentally I ran it through the test index and got this:
    This has an average grade level of about 23.

  4. More apologizes I'd thought my first ramble - mainly snippets from Postman - was way too long so I edited it but must have pushed post inadvertently.

  5. No problem.
    You may be interested to know that your first comment comes in at an 8.4 grade level but the second at 12.6 according to the Flesch-Kinkaid Calculator.
    I had a buddy in high school who once said "This is more fun than stomping baby chickens."

  6. I presume you maybe using something like the "Readability Test Bookmarklet":
    Also just another aside I suspect Lincoln and Douglas, as well as most of their equals, and likely a large number of the ordinaries, simply, at that time, had minds trained much differently than our own modern ones. This fact - I think differently from some one of my grandfather's, or for that matter my father's, ilk - has always bother me regarding some of the peccadilloes that bothered Postman and now Chris Hedges, who seems to have inherited from Postman a certain curmudgeony outlook regarding some aspects of today.
    In regard to the old days relative to now a link to an interesting "downunder" ABC program ARS MEMORATIVA - THE MEDIEVAL CRAFT OF MEMORY: