Economics and Inequality – Changing Public Discourse

It has taken a groundbreaking book by French Economist Thomas Piketty (“Capital in the 21st Century”) to bring media and pundit attention to a problem which all legitimate economists have been concerned about for years. Pikkety very elegantly points out that income inequality is not only systemic, but it has systemic effects on virtually every aspect of life. This is something conservatives are keenly aware of; and a large reason, I believe, that in the current campaign term conservatives have jettisoned social issues for broader expansion of Friedman School market economic policy.

The problem for progressives in Wisconsin is that while all the macroeconomic data and facts about income inequality point to progressive solutions for our economic woes; the conservative frame of economics dominates policy, media, and language used by even the most progressive economists and policymakers. This is a critical problem. As we know from cognitive science research, trying to counter the conservative frame of economics by merely stating counterfactuals in their frame will only reinforce their frame. This is known as “negation.” Only by expressing economics in the progressive frame and providing context for the facts can this shift be achieved. So how do progressives do this in Wisconsin? First – understand the conservative frame of economics. Second, understand how to frame economics as a progressive. Finally, always frame economic facts in the progressive frame…again and again.

The conservative frame of economics is structured and expressed through the strict father metaphor of family (think James Dobson). The basic moral system goes like this: The strict father is the highest authority in the family, and as such is the highest MORAL authority. To be successful, one must be disciplined, and therefore moral. If one is not disciplined, you must be punished (usually inflicting physical pain) in order to become disciplined, and until you are disciplined, you deserve your poverty. Once you are disciplined, you will be moral, and therefore successful. While this is a complex moral system metaphor, it is easy to see it imprinted across conservative policy.

In addition, the conservative moral view of democracy is such that pursuit of one’s self interest is paramount. As such, the Public (government) and any other impediment to the pursuit of self-interest is immoral. So what does this say about economics and inequality from the conservative frame? Everything…

In order to be successful, you must be disciplined and therefore moral. If you are poor, it is because you are undisciplined and deserve your (physically painful) punishment in the form of poverty. When you become disciplined, you will be able to “pull yourself up” and be successful. It is immoral for you to receive help which you do not earn (via the Public), as that will prevent you from becoming disciplined.

Moreover, in the conservative frame, the market itself is moral, and functions as the strict father – punishing those who are undisciplined, and rewarding those who are disciplined. To conservatives, the market is the decider, making moral decisions on who prospers, and who gets punished. For this reason, the Public has no moral basis for impeding the market. The market economy is, in essence, a moral actor in the conservative frame.

The language evoking the conservative frame in economics is everywhere. It has culturally evolved over 40 years to be accepted by even progressive economists such as Paul Krugman. We know that this will continue to reinforce the entire moral frame of conservative economics – remember – all politics are moral. Here is an example from the current Wisconsin Gubernatorial race, demonstrating that even the Democratic Party candidate Mary Burke reinforces the conservative frame of the economy.

Mary Burke led the European Division at Trek…creating good jobs right here in Wisconsin. She took the same private sector approach as Secretary of the Department of Commerce... She’s the only candidate in the race to have created jobs in the private sector, and the only one to have started her own business. (Mary Burke Campaign website)

“I think we can have that sort of transformational difference — from government providing all the answers to where it empowered a partnership with employers, particularly small businesses, and created an environment for more jobs.” (Scott Walker Campaign website)

Remember, all politics are moral. We learn morality through deeply embodied metaphors which exist physically in our brains through decades of repetition and experience. Note that both candidates have “job creation” as the core of their economic platform. The Democratic candidate does not offer a contrasting view of the economy and employment. The phrase job creation evokes and activates the conservative moral frame of economics, and therefore the entire conservative moral frame as described above. How?

Using the term “job creation” accepts and reinforces the concept of the market, corporations, and wealthy individuals as moral (since they are successful, authoritarian “fathers” who rule by punishment). As such, it is only they who have the moral right to decide who is sufficiently disciplined and deserves a job. Under this moral system, if you do not have a job, it is your own fault for being undisciplined, and therefore you are immoral and deserving of your unemployment. The market and corporations are moral, it cannot be their fault. Again, this imprints onto every conservative issue, as one can easily observe. By evoking the “job creation” part of the frame, it activates the ENTIRE conservative frame, unconsciously reinforcing the entire conservative moral structure. This is a critical problem well beyond any political campaign. What to do…how do progressive reframe economics?

We have to start with a fundamental economic truth which comes out of the progressive frame, and is denied by conservatives – “Private enterprise and prosperity are impossible without the Public (all of us).” There are no successful businesses or individuals without the investment we all make in each other and our communities. The progressive view of democracy says just that – democracy is caring citizens acting through the Public (government – all of us) to expand freedom for everyone. The core of this frame is simple – EMPATHY. We must start talking economics in the frame of empathy and progressive freedom.

Another key is to understand and express the fact that corporations employ people because they will generate more profit. Therefore, WORKERS ARE PROFIT CREATORS. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be hired. There are no magic jobs creators who do so out of goodwill – profit is the motivator. This says a tremendous amount when we frame economic inequality this way:

It is workers who create profit for the wealthy and corporations. As such, those workers deserve a fair portion, as a family supporting living wage, of those profits for their work. This in turn will increase economic freedom and opportunity for more people, as it will increase the wages (share of profits) people will have to buy more goods and services. The cycle will be perpetual, bringing about greater income equality and access to capital for more and more people.

Further, the prosperity a private individual or corporation experiences is not possible without the public. The more wealth and capital one has, the more public resources and services they use – courts, infrastructure, government services, finance system, etc. It is their moral and patriotic duty to pay their fair share of taxes, as an investment in the Public which supports their prosperity. Hiding revenue and lobbying against progressive taxation is a betrayal of Public trust, immoral, and unpatriotic. It is greed, plain and simple, and this needs to be said!

When economics is considered in this frame, it takes on a very different meaning. It evokes a frame where there is economic freedom and opportunity for everyone, not just the wealthy and privileged. Where corporations gladly pay a progressive and fair share of taxes to support the investment we all make in them through public education, infrastructure, court systems, financial system, and public servants – instead of lobbying to destroy the Public.

It also evokes a moral frame where all workers are valued as profit creators, and therefore receive a fair share of those profits, to live free from fear of want now and in retirement. It evokes a sense of freedom, opportunity and fairness for everyone – not only the well connected and privileged.

These things need to be said ALL THE TIME when framing economics:

1. Private prosperity and enterprise are not possible without the Public (all of us)

2. Democracy is caring citizens acting through the Public to expand freedom for everyone.

3. Workers are profit creators, who deserve a fair, living wage share of those profits.

4. Empathy – we have a responsibility for others as ourselves.

Finally – reject the idea of the “job creator” and NEVER acknowledge it again. It is a fiction, which denies fundamental truths about a systemic economy where we are all connected, and are reliant on each other.

I am expecting a great deal of discussion and questions on this topic, as this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are deep, primary metaphors; moral hierarchies in the conservative frame; and deeply embodied frame structures at work here. To achieve a paradigm shift, we have to start being aware, and communicating effectively in our progressive frame.

3 thoughts on “Economics and Inequality – Changing Public Discourse

  1. Amen to the proposal that those who care about the overall vitality of the American economy will stop RIGHT NOW using the term “job creator.” In addition to the problems you pointed out, idolizing business owners as job creators:
    • implies that a job creator is an Other (Them, not Us), when in reality all of us help to create jobs in our communities when we work, pay taxes, and buy local;
    • implies that business owners are motivated by some sort of altruistic urge to create jobs for others, rather than to take profits from their labor; and
    • implies that we, as workers and taxpayers, are somehow obliged beholden to those who perform this public service for our community and should pamper them with tax breaks, subsidies and special privileges.

    Not quite amen to another point. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that responsible Americans should talk about “private prosperity and enterprise” as if it has value in and of itself, though I’ll bang the drum any day for unmodified prosperity (no adjective) or for “shared prosperity.” *Private* prosperity by itself and in reasonable amounts has nothing greater than neutral value for our communities. Extreme private prosperity is an outright detriment to our nation’s and communities’ well-being.

    In “Private prosperity and enterprise are not possible without all of us,” I also detect the all-too-common progressive impulse to please others by referencing their values, even when it means keeping quiet about our own. That doesn’t enable us to bend the debate toward our values at all. And we know that contradicting others’ values doesn’t work, either.

    The path to consensus among our fellow citizens lies instead with detecting and emphasizing *common values.* Using this example, we need to be aware that only the selfish and greedy value private prosperity as an end in itself. The rest of us—still the broad foundation of American culture—value private prosperity and enterprise only as means to the desired goal of overall prosperity that enriches both our private and public sectors, and that is shared widely among all in our communities.

    So instead I’d say: “Our nation’s and communities’ prosperity is created by the Public—by all of us who work and pay taxes and buy things to support commerce in our communities.”

    • Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comments Karen! I understand your concern about the term “prosperity,” and as I said, this is a complicated process. Which also means redefining prosperity! Prosperity does not mean what the 1/2 of 1% would think, but rather a life where you have what you need to be happy – health, a home, food on the table, a stable and prosperous community, and infrastructure to support your work pursuits…not merely monetary wealth! In essence, what you are defining as “prosperity” is indeed how that word needs to be reframed and redefined!
      In addition, I would point out that it is important for us to demonstrate to the extreme wealthy conservatives that it is a fundamental truth that their “private prosperity” (in terms of wealth) is not possible without the public – which is all of us – therefore they owe us a debt.This is NOT saying that private prosperity is a moral means to an end – it evokes the systemic nature of economics, that we are all reliant on each other.
      The bottom line – it is important to redefine and reclaim prosperity as you point out – while at the same time pointing out the systemic reliance we have on each other for said prosperity.

  2. Thanks for the prompt reply!
    1) You and I agree on what ‘prosperity’ means and what it should mean. My concern focuses on the wisdom of making any statements that reinforce the value of only PRIVATE prosperity as a desirable end in itself. Instead, we need to focus attention (ours and others) on the truly desirable end goal: SHARED prosperity that lifts our entire community and nation, both private and public sectors.

    2) You and I agree on the fundamental truth about the systemic nature of our economy: that it cannot bring any of us prosperity for very long if the vast majority of its citizens have only meager ability to consume, pay taxes, better themselves with education and entrepreneurship, etc.
    We also agree that in bringing that awareness to our fellow citizens, it’s important to avoid phrases that reflect/assume/infer any values other than our own (e.g., Private wealth is a desirable goal for our nation’s economic policy.) For what it’s worth, I am completely uninterested in using any of my energy or spirit to “demonstrate (anything) to the extremely wealthy conservatives.” I’m interested only in messages that will connect with fellow citizens, not to a tiny fraction of outliers who are not listening to us anyway.

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