Don’t Talk about Death Taxes Till You’ve Read This

As Jacobson, Raub, and Johnson have pointed out, supporters of these taxes have seen their moral purpose as “preventing the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few powerful families.” It’s fair that very large estates should pay these taxes because they have benefited from the government’s work more than others. A few examples include government regulation of securities, police protection (having more property and wealth to protect than others), and low tax rates on capital gains income.

I don’t want America to be a country in which dynasties hand vast wealth down to their children while the rest of us tread water or fall into poverty.

The taxes should be called what they are: estate and inheritance taxes. If we want to make clear that only a few pay them, we could call them “taxes on very large estates and inheritances.”

What do you think?

Smaller Government = Wimpy Government

Like a traffic cop, government should be strong, caring, and responsible enough to protect our rights and safety.
Like a traffic cop, government should be strong, caring, and responsible enough to protect our rights and safety.
Photo Credit: RobertFrancis via Compfight cc

Americans for Tax Reform’s Grover Norquist famously said that he wants the federal government to be small enough to drown in a bathtub. If we take this metaphor seriously, then he wants a wimpy government–one he could easily overpower.

If he got his way, Uncle Sam would be wimpy in specific ways, especially:

  • Too weak to protect Americans from abuse and neglect by Big Business (because of deregulation of business) and
  • Too weak to help Americans suffering poverty and hardship (because of slashing the social welfare system).

What if supporters of industry regulation and social welfare argued like this?

My opponent says he wants smaller government. What he means is he wants a wimpy government:

  • a government too weak to stop oil companies from drilling in dangerous ways in dangerous places,
  • a government too weak to protect us when employers fail to pay overtime and discriminate against employees,
  • a government too weak to say no when state and local governments try to make it harder for citizens to vote,
  • a government too weak to punish car companies when they sell us cars with dangerous defects,
  • a government too weak to extend a helping hand when we suffer unemployment and poverty,
  • a government too weak to insist that businesses, communities, and individuals leave America cleaner, safer, and healthier than we found it through environmental regulations,
  • etc.

That’s unacceptable! I believe America is greatest when the government is our strong ally and protector:

  • Strong, caring and responsible enough to protect our rights when they’re violated;
  • Strong, caring and responsible enough to insist that Big Business consider not just shareholder value but also the wellbeing of its workers, communities, and the natural world that makes life and commerce possible;
  • Strong, caring and responsible enough to tell Big Oil, “Sorry, it’s too dangerous to drill there.”
  • Strong, caring and responsible enough to tell Big Finance, “Sorry, what you’re asking for could lead to another crash like in 2008. We can’t have that.”


Whatever you may think of these specific examples, the construction “a government too weak/wimpy to…” do something that Americans deeply value is powerful. It exposes what the vision of “smaller government” could mean.

And opposing this vision of wimpy government with a vision of strong, caring, responsible government also is powerful. That is what progressives want. We should proudly say so.

What say you?

P.S. I’ve never been able to square the drown-in-a-bathtub image with a strong military.

Prison Rehabilitation Needs Rehabilitation

Yesterday’s Morning Edition story about NY governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D) proposal to reinstate a program to allow prison inmates to take college classes is a fascinating study in framing.

Let’s examine the story’s arguments for and against the proposal:

For Against
“‘Forget nice; let’s talk about self-interest,’ Cuomo [said]. ‘You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years, that’s 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half, that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back.’Cuomo says helping inmates get a college education would cost about $5,000 a year per person — chump change, he argues, if it keeps that inmate from bouncing back into prison.” “What do you say to a Yoko Ono if Mark David Chapman [who killed her husband, John Lennon] says, ‘I want a college education?’ ” the reporter asked.
Cuomo also says, “Let’s use common sense, the economic cost, the human cost — let’s invest and rehabilitate people so they have a future.” “[T]axpayers just won’t stand for inmates getting a free college education, while middle-class families struggle to pay for their kids’ tuition, housing and books.”That is the vast majority of feedback that I’m also getting from my constituents,” [NY State Assemblywoman Addie Russell (D)] says. “You know, ‘Where is the relief for the rest of the law-abiding population?'”
“There must be no doubt about whose side we’re on,” [President Bill] Clinton argued [in 1994]. “People who commit crimes should be caught, convicted and punished. This bill [eliminating student aid for inmates] puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it.”
“Club Med” for inmates

Note that all the arguments against the proposal are about fairness, not money and self-interest. While the fiscal argument is strong, it doesn’t touch hearts. When made, as in this article, without being framed in values, it seems to inaccurately reduce justice to dollars.

The moral argument against touches both minds and hearts. Unless a strong moral argument in support is made over and over, I expect the nos will have it.

The argument against comes from what George Lakoff calls the strict-father worldview: prisoners are bad people who deserve only punishment. Their rehabilitation is solely up to them, not the state.

The argument in support comes from Lakoff’s nurturant-parent worldview: We are all in this together. Despite having done bad things, prisoners continue to be Americans and human beings and should be helped to return to society as productive citizens when possible and sensible. That is what we would want in their shoes, and rehabilitation makes the community stronger and safer.

Have I been fair in presenting the strict-father and nurturant-parent worldviews?

When They Make It Personal, Return to the Issue

As Slate blogger David Weigel has reported, James O’Keefe of Project Veritas (an Orwellian name) challenges Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) about an amendment he proposed to the Voting Rights Act.

Weigel observes:

There is no mention of the “Voting Rights Act” in the intro. It’s called “a part of federal law that gives Eric Holder the power to approve election law in 16 states,” and Sensenbrenner’s amendment is called “legislation to give [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder back power over state elections.” Framed that way, what conservative could possibly support it?

From a framing point of view, what strikes me is that O’Keefe’s language makes Eric Holder the issue. This seems like an attempt to repeat the success the right has had in discrediting the Patient Protection Act by calling it Obamacare. As I’ve pointed out, this name makes President Obama and people’s feelings about him the issue instead of the law’s contents.

When bullies try to make an individual (such as Attorney General Eric Holder) the issue instead of the policy, return the subject back to the values at stake. As far as I know, birds are still not allowed to vote.
Eric Holder Photo Credit: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Develop via Compfight cc
Voting Booth Photo Credit: seeingimonkey via Compfight cc

VotingBoothSo how should Framologists reframe personalization? Instead of just saying that it isn’t about Eric Holder, we should make clear the values and principles at stake. I think these are:

  • Equality. No state or county should be allowed to discriminate against voters based on race or language.
  • Protection. The American government has a responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens. In this case, the federal government is the proper level because some states have a history of racial discrimination in voting.
  • Freedom. An abstract right to vote is meaningless if states or counties make it too hard to exercise. Protecting this right creates the freedom to vote.

So Framologists would explain that the amendment is about equality, freedom, and protection of Americans’ right to vote without discrimination. I’d recommend not naming Mr. Holder by saying, e.g., “It’s not about Eric Holder.” As George Lakoff has pointed out in Don’t Think of an Elephant, putting a no or not in front of the topic doesn’t stop people from thinking about the topic and their feelings and mental associations with it.

If it seems important to defuse the Eric Holder association, we could say something like, “If the amendment became law, of course we would expect the attorney general, whoever that might be, to enforce it. He should not only because it’s his job but because he would be protecting our right to vote and supporting freedom and equality.” That returns the subject where it belongs.

What do you think? Am I making too much of this?

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?
Photo Credit: FraserElliot via Compfight cc

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.

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?

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.
Photo Credit: Kaptain Kobold via Compfight cc

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?
Photo Credit: ˇberd via Compfight cc

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.
Photo Credit: Majiscup – The Papercup & Sleeve via Compfight cc

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?