What Does Failure Even Mean Anymore?

I was listening to the Diane Rhem show a few weeks ago and a caller said something to the effect of “the tax system is the US is a total failure.” Problematic? Sure. But a total failure? C’mon.

When one thinks of total failure, one should think of the Somali government. Or New Coke. Not a system that, while clearly having its problems, generally functions. Most Americans pay their taxes. Most tax is collected. There’s rarely violence or death involved.

The “total/utter/abject” failure is a common refrain these days and most often applied to things which are not, it turns out total, utter, abject or even slight failures. American elite colleges: In a state of ‘complete failure’? The Failure Of American Schools. The United States corporate tax policy is a complete failure.

But none of these things are failing. Taxes are collected. Kids are learning. With the ease or at the rate that they should be? Perhaps not. But that doesn’t constitute a failure.

It’s a failed used of the word failure to apply it in such a way.