Economists are slippery bunch. In public fights over policy, many folks claim economic theory proves that markets are paragons of efficiency and that the government should mostly butt out – and economists often aid and abet this line of attack. Exhibit A: the efforts under President Clinton to loosen banking regulations, which made the 2008 financial meltdown a hell of a lot more likely. But when you confront economists about the failures of their profession, aside from a handful like Paul Krugman or Dean Baker most of them will say, that’s a very simplistic view of economics. What about all the behavioral economists whose books get rave reviews? Or economists who talk about how institutions really work? Or the folks who have disapproved the Efficient Market Hypothesis in Finance? That’s all true, and yet somehow that much more complex view of the economy never filters back to the big public debates.
So I was happy when I found this quote from international development economist Dani Rodrik that nicely sums up the verbal dance done by many economists.
Let a journalist call an economics professor for his view on whether free trade with country X or Y is a good idea. We can be fairly certain that the economist, like the vast majority of the profession, will be enthusiastic in his support of free trade.
Now let the reporter go undercover as a student in the professor’s advanced graduate seminar on international trade theory. Let him pose the same question: Is free trade good? I doubt that the answer will come as quickly and be as succinct this time around. In fact, the professor is likely to be stymied by the question. “What do you mean by ‘good?’” he will ask. “And good for whom?”
The professor would then launch into a long and tortured exegesis that will ultimately culminate in a heavily hedged statement: “So if the long list of conditions I have just described are satisfied, and assuming we can tax the beneficiaries to compensate the losers, freer trade has the potential to increase everyone’s well-being.” If he were in an expansive mood, the professor might add that the effect of free trade on an economy’s growth rate is not clear, either, and depends on an altogether different set of requirements.
A direct, unqualified assertion about the benefits of free trade has now been transformed into a statement adorned by all kinds of ifs and buts. Oddly, the knowledge that the professor willingly imparts with great pride to his advanced students is deemed to be inappropriate (or dangerous) for the general public.
Ditto for the other place many folks encounter economics: intro economics courses.
In our zeal to display the profession’s crown jewels in untarnished form – market efficiency, the invisible hand, comparative advantage – we skip over the real-world complications and nuances, well recognized as they are in the discipline. It is as if introductory physics courses assumed a world without gravity, because everything becomes so much simpler that way.
Part of the reason why economists play this game is because it’s a hell of a lot harder to come up with a coherent framework if you take all of the non-market cheerleading facets of economic theory seriously – especially if you’re not comfortable doing economics without lots & lots of math.
But it’s also part of a larger ideological play. I don’t mean that somewhere there is a small cabal of high priest economists plotting world economic theory domination as they stroke the cat sitting on their lap. But if you’re going to push for a myth about how the economy works that is so obviously not true, you do need some way to accommodate that reality. And treating reality as if it’s too dangerous for lesser mortals is a damn good way to do it.
Recently, I’ve had conversations with two different friends where I wanted to bring up the theory work I’m doing. They aren’t folks who read Brad DeLong, Dean Baker, or Kevin Drum for fun, and they aren’t lefty activists. They’re just good folks who think what’s going on in our country is messed up and want it to change. I realized I have no idea how to explain what I’m doing in a way that would make sense to them. I don’t mean that I couldn’t find the words to spell it out in plain English. What I can’t do – at least not off-the-cuff – is get across why my theory matters.
For the previous leg of this journey, I’ve been focused on figuring out how the pieces add up and would make sense to folks who pay attention to economics. Now it’s time to ask, how can I make this theory resonate emotionally – to speak to people’s hearts and souls, not just the little calculator in their brain?
Or as the book Switch puts it, I’ve been talking to the rider. Now I need to figure out how to talk to the elephant.
This isn’t going to be easy. If I’m lucky, in the first few tries I’ll dip my toes in the water for a minute or two, declare victory, and run away. But I think it’ll pay off — and not just in making my theory more appealing. Emotional resonance isn’t just about how you sell something. There are bits and pieces of my theory I keep circling back to, and it isn’t just because they’re intellectual useful. They speak to my emotions as well as my inner policy geek. If I can start uncovering the emotions behind them, not only will it make it easier to explain why my theory matters, but it should also help uncover the themes that (hopefully) connect them.
I’ve been doing a little thinking about how to talk about values and choice. For the hell of it, I decided to see how Republican Party websites do it. Most of them were cookie-cutter, negative, and pretty boring — cut taxes, cut government regulations, and cut wasteful spending. The Texas Republican Party put a little more thought into building a positive vision. There was plenty I don’t agree with, such as:
The entrepreneurial spirit of the individual that continues to solidify Texas as a world economic power….
A society assisting those in need rather than a government trying to solve every problem by just throwing more money at it.
But I was surprised at some of the language that did work for me. For example:
Opportunity For All
The opportunity to chart one’s own course start a business, chase a dream, or build a life regardless of gender, race, or religion.
The most interesting piece was on Limited Government:
A government that promotes policies to unlock individual potential and unleash economic growth. Government that does not try to be all things to all people.
It’s a clever way of trying to have it both ways. They admit government plays a critical role. And who other than Stalin would say government should be all things to all people?
In contrast, although the Oregon Republican Party talked about individuals — “Our political party has a common belief of personal freedom” — when it came down to brass tacks, they came down in a very different place.
Protecting our environment
Oregonians share a common interest in protecting the scenic beauty and livability of our great state. The Republican Party believes there is a balance between the environment and our natural resources. Healthy sustainable forests leads to a vibrant wood products industry that provides family wage jobs. Clean water flowing in our rivers and ocean estuaries benefits us all through tourism, recreation and fisheries industry jobs. We must use a common sense approach to balance these issues.
A nice job of saying they care about the environment without saying much else.
The one thing that struck me after reading a bunch of these sites is that using language like “choice” is a bad way to go. Although making choices can be one of the most profound things we do, it’s easy to end up sounding trivial, like deciding between Cheerios and Raisin Bran. These sites don’t make that mistake. When they talk about choice, they use much more powerful language, such as “unlocking individual potential” or “chart one’s own course” or “personal freedom.” Something I can definitely learn from them…
[Part 2 of the Promoting Broad Prosperity review]
Topos’ Promoting Broad Prosperity framework avoids a major problem with my approach. For the past few months, I’ve been focused on understanding how the nuts and bolts of the economy’s engine works. I think I’ve started to figure it out. But I haven’t yet figured out how this engine is connected to the steering wheel or the breaks, let alone how to connect the system’s aerodynamics — the shaping of a body to help it go faster — to its styling. And ultimately I think choosing an economic framework is like choosing a car. You don’t want it because of its engine or aerodynamics. You want it because it’ll get you to where you want to go and because it makes a statement about what matters to you.
I think Topos’ “the middle-class is no accident” frame is the first step in helping me figure out how to connect the engine to what folks really care about. There’s no preamble. They don’t start with “the economy.” They go straight to what matters to most U.S. folks — the “middle class,” by which most Americans mean building a society where everybody can make it. Then Topos immediately connects it back to how the economy really works. Their framework never goes into the depth or nuance I think we’ll need for a truly powerful way of thinking about the economy. But that’s not what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to hit people where they live — and do it quickly.
The frame also sets you up nicely for slapping down a counterattack. If somebody says to you, “you just want more big government,” you can say,
So you think giving 4.4 million veterans a college grant after World War II was a mistake? Or FHA loans so for the first time millions of Americans could own their own home? Are you saying that didn’t happen? Or are you against the middle-class?
Who wants to be on the receiving end of that?
The frames of the Intentional Middle-Class and Public Structures also keeps the conversation focused on the whole. If Topos just talked about, say, schools, somebody could play the Exception card — I mostly don’t want government, but it’s okay for education. If they just talked about healthcare, some folks might say they think healthcare should be up to individuals. But having a strong middle-class? It covers so many facets of government that it’s the rule, not the exception. And it doesn’t come in individual servings; it’s something we’ve gotta Choose Together.
A few months ago, I read a smart research brief Topos wrote for Demos called Promoting Broad Prosperity. Topos has done a ton of surveys, focus groups, etc. to figure out how most Americans think about the government’s role in creating a good economy. They’ve come up with a very interesting approach I think will be helpful in rethinking my framework.
The problem, according to Topos, isn’t that most folks are ideologically opposed to “government ‘interference’ in the economy.”
Rather, the more fundamental problem is that they find it difficult to even see that policy shapes the economy. Many default to thinking of the economy as either “natural” (a “free” market that will “turn around”) or shaped by the decisions of multiple individual actors (greedy business executives who offshore jobs, irresponsible consumers who buy more than they should, hard-working small employers who treat employees well, unskilled workers who aren’t prepared for certain jobs, etc.). In neither case is intentional, collective action to shape the economy relevant to the public’s considerations. After all, you can’t legislate away the irresponsibility of consumers who borrow more than they should, or create policies to cause executives to stop making decisions based on personal greed.
To tackle these views, Topos says we should use 2 key ideas that test well. The first idea:
The Intentional Middle Class: A strong middle class, which is the engine driving our economy, doesn’t arise by accident, but is the result of deliberate and proactive choices.
For example, this statement tested well:
A middle class does not happen by accident—it takes long-term planning and particular kinds of policies like an affordable college education, home mortgage deductions to encourage homeownership, and tax and investment policies that allow people to build more savings. In this country we’ve worked hard to grow and strengthen the middle class, with policies like these. Some societies don’t take significant steps to build a middle class and those societies have a large class divide.
Why focus on the middle class?
It helps people focus on broad-based prosperity and collective stakes, as opposed to individual outcomes. Since the vast majority of Americans see themselves as “middle class” or aspiring to be middle class, steps to grow and strengthen the middle class are steps that are in our collective interest. It puts the focus on what government should (try to) achieve, and avoids the question of whether government can achieve economic results…. Americans usually think of the middle class as “most Americans”—it is natural to believe that government efforts should benefit most Americans. …
“Middle class” means “all of us,” so steps to help and strengthen the middle class are steps that build broad-based prosperity and are in our collective interest.
The second idea: “public structures.”
Public Structures as Economic Foundation: The “public structures” created and maintained by government are foundational to prosperity and economic stability, as well as the strength of the middle class.
Topos argues there are 2 useful ways to talk about how public structures help create a good economy. The first: by “paving the way” for new innovations and industries. Continue reading
Two interesting clips from Rachel Maddow’s show last week on talking about government.
From an attack ad by Republican Sue Lowden, who’s trying to unseat Harry Reid:
Harry Reid‘s big government health care plan will raise taxes, put a bureaucrat between you and your doctor, weaken Medicare, kill jobs, push us further into debt. I‘m Sue Lowden and I approved this message, because government-run health care is wrong.
Plenty of politicians contradict themselves. And Republicans have been able to get away with attacking “big government” in one speech while accusing the Democrats of trying to cut Medicare in another speech. But when you get to the point where your rhetoric is contradicting itself in the same ad, you’re headed for trouble — if the Democrats force the issue.
Meanwhile, when Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, who’s challenging corporating-luvin’, union-hatin’, public-option-flip-floppin’ Blanche Lincoln, was asked by Rachel Maddow how he’s different from Blanche Lincoln, he showed how smart Dems talk about government:
I’m running for United States Senate to put Washington back on the side of middle-class Arkansas families.
Instead of getting stuck arguing is he for or against more government, Halter puts it back on his opponents — who do you think government should be for or against?