Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, a retired rear admiral, recently said that during the long U.S. undertaking in Afghanistan “the goals did migrate over time.” Did the goals themselves have agency — minds of their own? Why do so many people, particularly in government, engage in such gaseous talk? Because it envelops in abstract, obfuscating vocabularies things that are awkward to defend. And because we are decades into the “leakage of reality” from American life.

President Biden says the Taliban is “going through sort of an existential crisis about do they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government.” Which is worse, if he means this, or if he doesn’t? The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, says “we expect the Taliban to respect women’s rights” and “to be respectful of humanitarian law.” No sentient person expects anything of the sort.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken proclaims three musts: “Afghans and international citizens” who wish to leave Afghanistan “must” be allowed to. Roads, airports and border crossings “must remain open.” “Calm must be maintained.” “Must,” lest nice people frown? State Department spokesman Ned Price is pleased that the U.N. Security Council has asked the Taliban to create a government that is “united, inclusive, and representative, including with the full and meaningful participation of women.” If this were even remotely possible, why were 20 years and $2 trillion devoted to resisting the Taliban?

Nonsense from high officials is nothing new. Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, once said that the Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev “shares our dreams and aspirations.” But why does it seem that, now more than ever, government officials who have nothing sensible to say insist on proving this?

The economist Arthur Pigou wrote that “environments . . . as well as people, have children.” Today’s social environment is the child of decades of no-longer-new communications technologies. In an era of instant, inexpensive and high-velocity dissemination of anyone’s words, there is a Gresham’s law of rhetoric: Bad drives out good. Hence the plague of pompous garrulousness — of officials insulting the public’s intelligence with bromides no one believes.

Former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said that historian Edward Gibbon detected a “leakage of reality” in the late Roman empire. Moynihan often used this phrase to denote Americans’ “seeming weakness at grasping the probable consequences of what we do or fail to do.” Often, however, it is worse than a weakness: It is a calculated effort to make blurry some realities concerning which speaking clearly would be awkward. For example, according to The Dispatch, Oregon has just adopted “equitable graduation standards.” This anodyne verbiage means that “students of color” can graduate from high school without demonstrating high-school-level proficiency in reading, writing or math. The Oregon Department of Education urges teachers to read a handbook for “dismantling racism in mathematics instruction.”

Today’s stunning leakage is of prestige from government. Biden has exhorted congressional progressives, who needed no encouragement, to force the most comprehensive peacetime expansion of government in U.S. history. The grandiosity has two dimensions. One is government’s siphoning away of a hitherto unimaginable portion of society’s current and future fiscal resources. The other is a radical revision of the nation’s civic vocabulary by postulating, as in Oregon, that disparities in social outcomes are prima facie evidence of the nation’s endemic viciousness.

Suddenly the Afghanistan tragedy has become a powerful accelerant of the U.S. government’s prestige leakage, punctuating seven months of government aggrandizement. Has there ever been such a swift contraction of a new president’s standing? Herbert Hoover, whose many pre-presidential accomplishments gave him momentum for the public’s respect, was in his eighth month as president when the stock market collapse presaged what became, unnecessarily, a decade-long Depression. It took, however, several years before the gravity of the contraction became apparent and the public’s confidence in Hoover withered.

Perhaps few 2022 voters will cast ballots with today’s scenes from Kabul’s airport on their minds. But because of those mortifying scenes, a significant number of voters might have a more jaundiced view of government’s extravagant 2021 pretentions regarding its ability to rearrange the nation’s economy and transform its moral premises. And perhaps many will remember the government’s often self-serving and disgraceful rhetoric about Afghanistan.

Clement Attlee, Britain’s prime minister from 1945 to 1951, once told Harold Laski, chairman of Attlee’s Labour Party, that “a period of silence on your part would be welcome.” Biden should say that to some of his subordinates, and some of them would serve him by saying it to him.