What Government Budget-Cutting Can Cost Us

It happens all the time. An elected official says, “That social services office has a budget of $1 million, but we have other offices. Let’s ease our budget woes by closing that office and saving $1 million.”

Not so fast!

That claim makes the following unspoken assumptions:

  • That the office’s work is of no value and
  • That there’s no downside to closing the office.

Both assumptions are almost certainly false. Let’s imagine why.

What’s the moral case for keeping it open? What values and principles are at stake?
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Suppose it’s a Health and Human Services office in a county-seat town that manages many public social services. After it’s closed, people in the area have to travel farther to an office in a larger town.

Now those that were working to overcome poverty, unemployment, homelessness, family problems, mental health issues, addictions, domestic violence, and so on face more hassle. Some won’t go to the new office or won’t go as often as before because they don’t have transportation, can’t afford the higher fuel costs, or don’t have time due to work and family pressures. That means they don’t get the help they need, and they and their communities suffer.

When budget-cutters say we can’t afford it, I think they mean they aren’t convinced that it’s important. So the remedy is to make not only a fiscal case in support of the office/program/service but also a moral case.

The moral case would be grounded in what George Lakoff calls (in Thinking Points, Chapter 4, pp. 53-54) progressive morality:

  • Empathy. If you needed what that office offered, how would you want to be treated?
  • Responsibility to act upon empathy, not just to feel it.
  • Protection of vulnerable citizens from harm.
  • Expansion of freedom by increasing, not reducing, access to needed services
  • Fulfillment (as in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”)
  • Opportunity. Reduced access to services means opportunity is lost.
  • Fairness and equality. With the office closed, would social services be available on a fair basis?
  • Human dignity. Every American has a right to live in dignity.

At their best, social services support the common good by expressing all these values.

So when the budget-cutters brag about how much they’ll save us by cutting, Framologists could respond like this (if true in the specific case):

“Mr. Budget Cutter says he’ll save us money. But his plan would cost us access to help in distress, loss of the freedom and dignity that come from solving our problems with a little help from the community, reduced opportunity to enjoy ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ and more unequal access to public services. That seems like a pretty high price. And then there are the likely financial costs of his plan….”

Pretty powerful, huh? Is it laying it on too thick? How do you argue for protecting what you value from the budget ax?

When “School Aid” Isn’t School Aid

Here’s an example of framing on the state level.  Iowa has a law that the legislature, within 30 days of convening, must set amounts of state money that will be available for each of the school systems in the coming academic year.

Since the beginning, this has been called “allowable growth.”  In other words, the legislature sets the amount by which each budget will be allowed to grow in the coming year.  School systems, obviously, depend on this during their budgeting processes to provide for everything from increases in diesel fuel costs (for buses) to staff raises.

The Republican majority in the Iowa statehouse, dominated by radicals, has refused to comply with this law, and allowable growth has not yet been set.  This is one kind of issue, of course, but nobody seems to care.

"Allowable growth" and "school aid" are two opposing ways of thinking about state funding of public education, not just different words.
“Allowable growth” and “school aid” are two opposing ways of thinking about state funding of public education, not just different words.

Radical Republicans now refer to allowable growth by the term “supplemental school aid.”  They have turned it from being a matter of law into being another government handout, signaled by their use of the red-flag word “aid.” This fits their ideology, but it is incorrect.

While it is true that state government aids school districts, the aid is funded by taxes and mandated by a law that predates this legislature by many years.

Some Democrats are buying into the term, unfortunately.  When my wife and I heard one of them use “school aid” at a League of Women Voters Legislative forum this morning, we said, “Ah, ah, it’s allowable growth.”  Undeterred, the radical Republican who was present published a column in our local newspaper repeating the phrase in question and attempting to justify his party’s defiance of state law.

This post’s author is the Rev. Dr. Cleveland Eugene Bryant, a United Church of Christ pastor who heard language used in all kinds of interesting ways over the forty years he served in congregations. In retirement, he volunteers in reading programs, works with the Iowa Democratic Party and League of Women Voters, and encourages his wife in her career as a professional organist. He also rides a motorcycle, but with all of his clothes on.

“Religious Freedom” Bills Aren’t About Religion or Freedom

Related to the so-called conscience clause that would excuse unprofessional refusals of care are religious freedom bills. A current example is Kansas’ HB2453, which passed the Kansas state house last week but died in the state senate yesterday.

March against racial discrimination
Thanks to these marchers and many others, America no longer tolerates refusing admission or service to people of color. Denying these based on sexual orientation is just as wrong. Though proponents say the issue is religious freedom, the real issue is power.
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Called “An act concerning religious freedoms with respect to marriage,” the bill would have prevented government agencies from compelling individuals and religious organizations to provide employment, employment benefits, and most any product or service to anyone involved in a gay marriage or civil union or even the celebration of one. Arguably, it also would allow businesses and religious organizations to refuse service to anyone involved in a gay relationship.

Calling such bills religious-freedom bills is Orwellian because they would take away freedom. They are about domination, not religion. They would empower people and organizations to deny basic human rights such as engaging in commerce and participating in the community. That’s unneighborly, un-American, unchristian, and unacceptable.

Besides, in a free society, our freedom depends on respecting the rights of others. If we can call discrimination an act of conscience, why couldn’t others do the same to us?

As George Lakoff has pointed out, bullies* use Orwellian language when they know their position is weak. I think Framologists should expose their position’s weakness and the true nature of such legislation by framing them as, perhaps:

  • The Freedom for Me but Not for Thee Act
  • Another LGBT Discrimination Act
  • The Anti-Marriage Act
  • The Marriage Inequality Act
  • The Marriage Discrimination Act
  • The Golden Rule Violation Act
  • The Religious Hypocrisy Act

Of these, the first and the last two are my favorites. Whatever we call them, it’s important to avoid calling such legislation “religious freedom” bills because they are not. What do you think Framologists should call them?

*Lakoff used the word conservatives.

Why “Freedom of Conscience” Could Excuse Unprofessional Behavior

Many states, including my own, have considered bills to protect health care professionals who refuse to provide care they judge to conflict with their personal  religious, moral, or ethical views and to refuse to refer patients to where they could get care. The care in question usually is reproductive: abortion, contraception, etc.

Known as the conscience clause or healthcare freedom of conscience bills, such bills could endanger patients–especially those with medical emergencies or that have few medical providers in their areas.

Such bills also violate professional ethics. For example, the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers, which I have promised to uphold as an NASW member, requires social workers to refer clients to a competent professional when terminating services. Furthermore, it requires that they smooth the transition to the next provider by, e.g., providing records the professional will need. (See 1.16(b) and (e) in the code).

Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self­determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. –NASW Code of Ethics 1.02

The code also requires social workers to “respect and support the rights of clients” to make decisions that affect their lives. It does not grant social workers license to end services without referral because a client wants something that conflicts with the worker’s personal values.

Because of the harm that refusing care can cause, such refusals could violate the Hippocratic Oath’s requirement to “first, do no harm.”

Because of the protection from potential ethical violations that such bills would provide, I call them Excusing Unprofessional Behavior acts. That is what they would do. This opposes the freedom-of-conscience frame with professional responsibility.

Professionalism demands placing the client’s interests ahead of one’s own when they conflict. Though it’s uncomfortable to be asked to provide a service that you don’t think is right, it’s part of being a professional. If you really can’t do it, refer.

What do you think of the Excusing Unprofessional Behavior Act?

Liberty or License?

My high school social studies teacher liked to distinguish freedom and license. Freedom, he said, is exercised with responsibility while license is doing what you want without considering how your behavior affects others.

The distinction matters. As pointed out in an earlier post, for example, the extreme position that firearms sales should not be regulated in any way is a demand for license, not legitimate exercise of rights. Rights imply responsibilities. Ownership of something as dangerous as deadly weapons calls for (at least) responsibility and accountability for their safe storage and use.

Another reason it matters is that it is the basis for much ideological conflict. From its very beginning, Americans have held different ideas about freedom. In American Nations, Colin Woodard points out that the Yankees of New England have long held a Germanic view of freedom:

  • that all are born free,
  • equal before the law,
  • with rights that must be respected.
Caesar Statue
Ancient Rome’s 1% enjoyed liberty with no accountability from the 99%. But in 21st century America, freedom should come with responsibility.
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By contrast, the settlers of the Virginia Tidewater sought to create a Greco-Roman-style republic. In the Roman view of liberty, most people were born unfree. “The Roman republic was one in which only a handful of people had the full privileges of speech (senators, magistrates), a minority had the right to vote on what their superiors had decided (citizens), and most people had no say at all (slaves)” (pp. 54-55).

Because I believe that America should be a land of freedom for all, to me liberty for the few without accountability amounts to license. It should be framed as such.

When opponents cry for liberty, we should ask:

  • Is the liberty they want for everyone or mainly for a privileged few?
  • If it’s for the few, how will the many hold the few accountable for their actions?

If the few wouldn’t be easily accountable, then the demand is for license, not responsible freedom.

What do you think? Is this an appropriate use for the concept of license?

Can We Escape the War on Terror Through Political Violence?

Especially since 9/11, terrorism has been used to justify so many questionable things that Framologists have to fearlessly face it. I mean the word.

Among other benefits, reframing terrorism as political violence avoids the cliché. Political violence is violence, no matter who does it.
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What does it mean? It’s been abused to mean almost any dissent. And as the cliché says, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” (The cliché was never taught non-sexist language.)

I see terrorism as violence meant to achieve political goals. Except when committed by governments or armies, terrorist acts are crimes, not acts of war. They deserve a law-enforcement response, not a military one.

Violence is the problem, not the solution.
What difference do you think it would make if we talked about political violence instead of terrorism?
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What if instead of talking about terrorism, Framologists turned the debate to political violence? An advantage to this is that, while terrorism is usually used to mean violence by opponents of a government, the phrase political violence can apply the other way: to government violence against dissenters.

Because of the vagueness of terrorism, reasonable people can disagree about whether, e.g., the Egyptian military is using terrorism to silence its opposition. But it would hard to deny that it is using political violence.

With the issue reframed as violence, it’s a small step to the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict. As I’ve written before, I believe this is the way out the war on terror.

What do you think? Is political violence an adequate reframe of terrorism?

Why Corporations Want You to Confuse Your Rights with Theirs

When the New York City Council approved a ban on sales of soft drinks in containers larger than 16oz, ban opponents used some ideological sleight-of-hand. It was so subtle that I noticed it only now!

Big Gulp cup--32 ounces
The issue should have been whether corporations should be allowed to tempt people to use too much of an unhealthy product, not individual liberty.
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By framing the ban as an issue of individual liberty, they obscured a crucial fact: the ban would have regulated the behavior not of individuals but of businesses. Individuals would still have been able to buy all the soda they wanted.

Therefore, the real issue was whether irresponsible corporations would still be allowed to tempt customers to use too much of an unhealthy product. All the talk about government overreach, the nanny state, and personal choice was really about the City’s treatment of corporations, not people.

All the talk about government overreach, the nanny state, and personal choice was really about the City’s treatment of corporations, not people.

This case demonstrates what corporations gain from confusing the rights of individuals with those of corporations and the harm this confusion can bring the public. It will be very difficult to ban harmful products if the bogus individual-liberty frame is allowed to define future debates.

However wise or foolish this ban proposal may have been, governments have a responsibility to regulate commerce within their borders and also a responsibility to protect the health of the community. In similar future cases, Framologists should name who is really affected by the proposal and identify the real issue as corporate responsibility, not individual liberty.

Do you know if soda-ban defenders used this approach? I’d love to hear about it!

How “the Nanny State” Influences Your Mind

A common way to disparage the government’s constitutional efforts to “promote the general Welfare”  is to call it the nanny state. Like tax relief, this two-word phrase packs a punch, and Framologists should avoid and reframe it.

The word "nanny" brings many connotations that mischaracterizes government efforts to protect citizens from harm.
The word “nanny” brings many connotations that mischaracterizes government efforts to protect citizens from harm.

Connotations of the nanny metaphor include:

  • Because nannies care for children, if the government is behaving like a nanny, it is inappropriately treating us like children.
  • Nannies are employees, so who is the boss? If We the People are the boss, we should be telling the government what to do, not the other way around.
  • Nannies are optional. They can be fired. Parents can care for their own children or hire a different nanny. If the government is like a nanny, do we need it at all?
  • Nannies are usually women, and in the patriarchal strict-father model, women are supposed to support their men, not tell them what to do.

So this two-word phrase brings to mind several tenets of the strict-father view of government. Consider reframing the “nanny state” as one of the following:

  • A strong, caring state
  • A reponsible state
  • A protective state

According to George Lakoff, empathy and responsbility are the core progressive values, and speaking of government this way brings these values to mind.

It likely also would bring their opposites to mind. Do opponents of the “nanny state” really want:

  • An uncaring state
  • A negligent state
  • An absent state
  • A wimpy state?

How do you think Framologists should reframe the nanny state?