Framing Markets, Part 2: Who Decides? What Do We Want?

How should progressives respond to the extreme conservative mantra,  Let the market decide!?

This slogan comes from the inaccurate view that markets justly mete rewards and punishments like the fundamentalist, strict-father version of God.

As noted before, from a progressive perspective, markets are tools to be used by Us the People for our benefit. If we were to let markets make important policy decisions for us, we would be like Don Quixote on his first sally. Seeking adventure, the would-be knight rode out of town and then let his horse decide where to go. The horse returned him to his barn, of course!

But at least his horse got him safely home. If we abandon ourselves to the judgment of “markets” without clear, consistently-enforced expectations for fair play and fair treatment of workers, customers, communities, animals, and the planet, the corporations that tend to dominate markets could be far crueler.

The effect of letting the market decide too often means that the two or three (sometimes only one) companies that dominate an industry decide for us what our options are. Insisting that the government, as the people’s servant, set rules to structure markets for our benefit, increases confidence in business and helps markets function in our interest.

Therefore, when extreme conservatives say to let “the market” decide, progressives should reply,What do we want markets to do for us?

But what do you think?

Framing Big Government: Who Governs and to What End?

Extreme conservatives label many government efforts they don’t like as big government. This frames the issue as the size of government–with smaller seeming more desirable, of course.

Big Brother is watching you.
According to the Principle of Conservation of Government, corporations could be the tyrant to be feared.

To me, the phrase brings to mind the all-knowing, all-powerful Big Brother from George Orwell’s novel 1984.

Instead of defending “big government,” progressives should reframe the debate as about who governs and to what end, not size. According to George Lakoff,

There is a Principle of Conservation of Government: If conservatives succeed in cutting government by the people for the public good, our lives will still be governed, but now by corporations. We will have government by corporations for corporate profit…. It will be a cruel government, a government of foreclosures, outsourcing, union busting, outrageous payments for every little thing, and pension eliminations.

Smaller Governement = Corporate GovernmentSo when extreme conservatives say they want smaller government, progressives could reply that their opponents are advocating government by corporations. Instead, we want the people to govern the nation, including corporations. A bumper-sticker version could read, “Smaller government = corporate government.”

Many of the laws government regulations that extreme conservatives want to abolish are intended to protect us from abuse by corporations. Examples include the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, Dodd-Frank, the Volcker Rule, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the minimum wage, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and on and on. If they succeed, the corporations would make the rules for their own benefit, not ours.

That’s unacceptable, and We the People should say so.

Is Scrooge a Hero?

Although Scrooge spoils Christmas by refusing to help those less fortunate and by paying his worker poverty wages, he has a change a heart.
Although Scrooge spoils Christmas by refusing to help those less fortunate and by paying his worker poverty wages, he has a change a heart.

In American pop culture, we call someone that dislikes Christmas or spoils the holiday Scrooge. But the protagonist of the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge, spoils  Christmas with more than his sour mood: he refuses to contribute to charity and pays his employee poverty wages, limiting his ability to care for his sick son and to celebrate Christmas.

The main way Scrooge has harmed society is by refusing to share his wealth.

Today, by trying to undermine or take away social insurance, public education, civil liberties, access to health insurance, access to meaningful participation in elections, public transportation, raises to the minimum wage, and long-term unemployment insurance, the radical conservative movement is behaving far worse than Scrooge. Rather than merely withholding their aid to vulnerable Americans, radical conservatives are trying to take rights and public goods away from us. This is wrong and spoils America, not just Christmas.

Because we don’t have time to wait for ghosts to do it for us, progressives should consider comparing the radical conservatives to Scrooge because it’s a story everyone knows. Progressives should point out that the radical conservatives are acting worse than Scrooge and that by the end, Scrooge does begin doing justice by sharing his wealth and giving his employee a raise. Will radical conservatives remain worse than Scrooge the villain, or will they rediscover America’s tradition of public-spiritedness and follow the example of Scrooge the hero?

Five Ways to Reframe Entitlement Reform

When referring to government programs in which Americans have a right to participate, such as Social Security and Medicare, the term “entitlement” used to mean a hard-won right of citizenship. These days, however, opponents of such programs use the word “entitlement” pejoratively in order to call these rights into question. The phrase “entitlement reform” is used to mean cuts to these programs. According to strict-father thinking, “the world doesn’t owe you a living,” so why should anyone receive money that they haven’t earned?

There’s a problem with this reasoning: it isn’t true.

For Social Security, Medicare, pensions, veterans’ benefits, and some other programs, the right to participate in these programs comes from having paid into their systems throughout our working careers or as deferred compensation. In other words, they are earned income. To cut these programs without the consent of their participants is to break the social contract. This would be morally wrong because hard-working Americans have earned these protections and have done nothing to deserve cuts to them. Also, many of us no longer could work to replace that income due to infirmity or disability, and cutting these protections would force many into undeserved poverty.

For programs into which Americans don’t pay as directly, such as SNAP (food stamps), we do contribute to them with our taxes. And even when Americans may not have paid much in income tax due to very low incomes, we do have a right to assistance from our country under the law, the teachings of Christianity and other religions,  and under Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are ways that Americans show we care for each other. While we may disagree about how best to express that caring, we should care and honor the rights of every American to participate in these programs when eligible.

Instead of speaking of entitlement reform, supporters of these programs should make clear what the bland phrase “entitlement reform” obscures. Five ways to reframe it are:

  • Theft of Americans’ deferred compensation
  • Cuts to older Americans’ income and healthcare in retirement
  • Keeping your social insurance premiums the same but cutting your future benefits (because Social Security and Medicare are insurance programs) and
  • Whacking away our right to security in old age, disability, or misfortune
  • A big pay cut for America

What do you think?

Framing the Free Market

In a 1999 essay in The Atlantic titled “The Market as God,” Harvey Cox brilliantly discusses  ways in which some Americans treat the idea of the free market as if it were a god. The problem is that, while markets certainly can be very influential, they are not gods and do not necessarily have people’s best interests at heart. In fact, they can seem heartless sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that markets are bad–just that deifying them is unwise.

A better understanding of markets came to me from an unlikely source: a book about parking. Donald Shoup’s excellent book The High Price of Free Parking argues for using market forces as tools to better manage parking.

An example is charging more for on-street parking during peak hours and charging less for parking in garages at the same time. That will encourage more drivers to park in the garage, leaving more on-street spaces available for those willing to pay extra for them. He proposes a goal of making one parking space available on each side of each block at any given time. That would allow motorists to park without having to cruise for spaces, saving time, fuel, pollution, and stress.

The details of Shoup’s proposals aside, instead of thinking of the market as god, progressives should talk about the market as tool. Therefore, the question should never be whether markets are good or bad but what markets are good for and bad at. How should we use markets, and who should benefit from them?

For example, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act attempts to use market forces to improve Americans’ access to quality health insurance. The government creates standards of quality and fairness and marketplaces for buying and selling insurance, and the insurance companies do the rest. It is an attempt to use markets to advance the health and wellbeing of Americans.

When extreme conservatives complain about government interference in the free market, progressives could reply (if they can say so truly) that government is providing the market structure that both companies and customers need so they know what behavior is and is not acceptable. This allows them to do business with confidence that they are being treated fairly and not ripped off or harmed. This confidence makes business possible. I think progressives should frame this as market-confidence building.

How do you think progressives should talk about markets?

Framing the Political Spectrum

Framing political opinion as either left or right puts people into boxes that often don’t fit them. George Lakoff identifies basic two systems of moral reasoning, which he calls the “strict-father model” and the “nurturant-parent model.” His books about politics and many of his blog posts describe these, and I strongly recommend reading Lakoff. So far this seems to support the left-right political spectrum, right?

Ah, but Dr. Lakoff’s research has found that many–if not most–Americans use both systems of moral reasoning on different political issues. For example, I want government to be a nurturant parent toward citizens most of the time but a strict father toward misbehaving corporations. All of a sudden, we’re not just one or the other.

I think a better metaphor than the left-right political spectrum is the Political Compass. This makes left and right one axis and authoritarian-libertarian a second axis. Take its test and see what you think!

A potential problem for this system in America is that the term libertarian refers to a specific set of ideologies and even a political party. I do think that progressives should talk about authoritarianism when appropriate. But if we don’t want to advertise the libertarian movement, what term should we use as the opposite of authoritarian?

Framing Political Correctness

I first heard the phrase political correctness (PC) in the early 1990s. Do you know its origin?

It refers to using language to emphasize people as human beings that have certain characteristics rather than defining them by their characteristics. I’ve heard it called “person-first” language, and that’s how I’ll call it. Here are some examples of obsolete terms from my childhood with their person-first replacements:

Obsolete Term New, Better, Person-first Term
Colored Person of color or African-American
Retard Person with mental retardation
Cripple Person with a disability
Schizophrenic Person with schizophrenia

I see the adoption of person-first language as an important advance in American culture. It’s a way to show that we appreciate our fellow Americans as human beings.

So why do some deride it as political correctness? This phrase invokes a worldview of  elites imposing an orthodoxy on people that don’t want it. There may just be some of this until person-first language becomes accepted everywhere.

The truth is that these groups and others often insist on person-first language for themselves. They don’t want to be called by the old terms that defined them as different from others and perhaps less of a person. It’s sad to think that courtesy could be so politically charged.

I think that when others talk about political correctness, progressives should talk about person-first language and putting people first. This is still a new idea to many, so please do so with kindness.

How do you think political correctness should be reframed? What have I missed?

P.S. One the tags that my blogging platform recommended for this post was “Geraldo Rivera!” How about that? Also “Georgia.” I’m scratching my head.

Framing Workers

While extreme conservatives frame business owners and the 1% as job creators, George Lakoff makes an important point about the role of workers in business. Chapter 14 of his excellent Little Blue Book is titled “Workers Are Profit Creators.” And so we are!

Here’s what he recommends saying (emphasis in original, p. 85):

  • Workers are profit creators. Corporations can profit only if people work for them.
  • Health care benefits and pensions are part of the pay earned by workers. They are deferred payments for work done.
  • Health care benefits and pensions benefit the workers and the companies that provide them.
  • Health care benefits and pensions add to profits. They buy loyalty so that companies can avoid the costs of recruiting and training new employees as well as the costs of operating with untrained employees.
  • Corporations have an ethical responsibility to pay in full for work done. That includes benefits and pensions.
  • Corporations are ethically responsible for setting aside funds for workers’ deferred payments and not using them for anything else. Spending those funds–on capital investment, stockholder dividends, or payments and bonuses to top managers–is unethical.

I strongly recommend the book. But how do you think workers should be talked about?

Framing Unemployment Insurance

In media reports that I’ve heard, defenders of unemployment insurance have emphasized the economic importance of continuing long-term unemployment insurance. While this fact matters, unemployment insurance requires defense on moral grounds also.

Here’s an attempt:

America is a nation composed not only of individuals but also of families, communities, cities, and states. Americans care about each other, and our wellbeing and suffering affect us all. Understanding this, during the Great Depression, the government wisely responded to mass unemployment, the collapse of the middle class, and rising poverty in part by establishing social insurance such Social Security and unemployment insurance.

In unemployment insurance, employers pay into state insurance trusts that pay benefits when workers lose their jobs, typically due to termination or layoff. It’s right that employers should pay the premiums because they decide who is fired and laid off and therefore are responsible for the worker’s unemployment.

Unemployed workers deserve our support not only because they need it to support their families while finding their next job but also because America is a country that values hard work and the people who do it. America is the Land of Opportunity and wants unemployment to be an opportunity for new work. We don’t accept that an employer’s decision to let someone go should mean that family should starve. We want to help make that next opportunity possible.

When Congress cancels long-term unemployment insurance, it sends the opposite message. That’s wrong.

What do you think the moral case for unemployment insurance should be?

Unemployment Insurance Recipients

With federal unemployment insurance currently cancelled for unemployed Americans, it’s important to talk about the topic carefully. As insurance, it pays benefit checks when Americans file eligible claims. Therefore, these checks are unemployment insurance benefits.

While this phrase is accurate, journalists and others sometimes abbreviate it to unemployment benefits or jobless benefits. This sounds as if the checks were a benefit of unemployment instead of a benefit of unemployment insurance.  It therefore unconsciously and misleadingly advances the conservative view that cash benefits discourage individual initiative and employment. Unemployment benefits and jobless benefits should be avoided.

The truth is that the checks are benefits of insurance for which their employers have paid taxes while the beneficiaries were employed. The amounts paid are typically far less than people earned while working but provide critical support to families in crisis. The unemployment insurance program typically also requires beneficiaries to apply for jobs every week.

I’ve also sometimes (e.g. this NPR story) heard beneficiaries of unemployment insurance called recipients. This word connotes welfare instead of insurance and should be avoided–even for those in a welfare program.

I think progressives should use the phrase unemployment insurance beneficiaries or Americans seeking to end their unemployment.

What do you think?