At long last, after much wrangling, the fantastic editors and publicity folks at Public Affairs Books and I have agreed on a title for my book. Due out in October this year…(drum roll)…
Don’t Buy It
The Trouble with Talking Nonsense About the Economy
Can’t wait to share cover images and other details, all forthcoming. For now, happy to say working middle of the night hours I thought were a grad school relic, I turned in the full manuscript at 11:57 on February 29th. A full 3 minutes before deadline! (Yes, I did get that leap year advantage, I know.)
The book details how our mangled metaphors and messaging missteps on all things economic make it hard — if not impossible — to advocate for the policies we so badly need. Everything from more progressive taxation, to prudent regulation, to addressing environmental destruction, doesn’t make sense if we don’t “prove” the economy is something people create and must control.
The Christian Science Monitor published my piece on how to frame inequality today.
Read it here, and share it widely!
Also, if you’re a commenting sort, please feel free to point out to people who have commented before you what the article is actually about. Sheesh.
Never mind they’ve misspelled my name (or that Osario means “the host” as in those wafer things-body of Jesus, depending who you’re asking.) Here’s a short radio clip of me offering some communications wisdom:
Happy almost New Year!
This post appeared originally here, on Huffington Post.
In a world gone wrong, at least we can count on Paul Krugman. The nobel laureate eviscerates the convoluted logic behind the next economic policy fiasco dressed up as a stimulus plan. He also lays out a critical notion about policy-making: the ways we describe things determines what is “true” about them. It profiles certain information and sends other aspects of an issue to the background, or out of the frame all together.
For example, when we talk about the economy being “unhealthy” or “suffering” we liken it to a body. This isn’t just literary license — it shapes what our audiences think ought to be done. Bodies do very well left to their own devices most of the time. They may require major intervention in crisis but they don’t need continuous monitoring and control.
Krugman rightly frowns upon this metaphor. However, he tars another very common simplification — economy as vehicle — that deserves better. He condemns the characterization of the tax plan as a “jump-start” to the economy, arguing that the vehicle metaphor is leading us to an economic dead end. But his critique is not actually of seeking a jump-start. Instead, he contends that the tax plan won’t get the economy moving very fast nor very far. It’s not bad wording, it’s poor mechanics that he identifies as the problem here.
In fact, one of the essential characteristics of vehicles is that they have drivers. They do not operate on their own. Ideally, these drivers have training, experience and pay attention. These are the very assumptions we wish people would make about our economy. Namely, that it requires capable, continuous, external control.
The vehicle metaphor is far from perfect. There are other, lesser-used explanatory models that have greater promise for conveying what this thing we call the economy is, how it works, and how we ought to interact with it. Unfortunately, none of the other contenders are widely-used and so to put them into operation we’d need to diligently craft new language from them.
Not surprisingly, Krugman doesn’t offer a solution for a better way to talk about and therefore convey assumptions about the economy. It’s always easier to notice what’s not working than suggest something that would. His economic prescriptions are, as usual, right on. His communication recommendations need a bit more gas.
A former colleague and I would routinely confuse each other in the simplest of office exchanges. When we needed to change a meeting time from say 2 to 3pm, I would request this by stating “let’s push the meeting back an hour.” He’d describe this as “moving it ahead.”
This misunderstanding stems from a conceptual difference. If you see yourself in relation to time moving past you, it makes sense to say that a later meeting time is ahead. It’s in the future, after all. Conversely, if you view yourself moving forward with time as the stable element, you’d call the desired change a movement back. It’s further removed from the present.
A similar difference is happening in labeling the cutting taxes/not raising taxes deal that seems (excuse my pessimism) all over but the shouting. If we stick on the “tax cut” label, we imply the norm is one where the rich pay more than they do today. The opposite is true about the conservative cries about an imminent tax increase. This language has current rates as the baseline.
It seems obvious, then, from a progressive perspective that “tax cut” it is. The rich are paying too little; they had a decade of chances to generate jobs and they didn’t. Why should they get rewarded for a job very poorly done?
But “tax cut” brings the citizen as payer of funds, not recipient of services to the foreground of the frame. This is a familiar trick. It obscures the reciprocal role we play, via democratic government, in each others’ well-being. It activates the school-yard “that’s mine” instinct we all need help and practice to tame.
The point to emphasize doesn’t come through in calling this a tax cut, no matter what pejorative for rich people we use to modify it. We need to convey this is a major loss of life-sustaining services. Brutal in any situation; cruel and self-defeating at a time like this.
Even attempts to evoke our ire at this train-wreck of a policy like “billionaire bailout” or “millionaire bonus” still don’t profile the new round of damage we’re about to inflict on ourselves. To get at this, I’ll start off the brainstorm — consider this a call for entries and please add your own:
Make the recession permanent policy
Bring on the Depression policy
Economic roadblock policy
Today, far more than previous the-day-before the last Thursday of November, I’ve been receiving “I want to thank the world” emails. Perhaps holiday newsletters have become either so ubiquitous or declasse that Thanksgiving is the new happy Hallmark holiday.
Nevertheless, I’m not sure if “thank you” works as blanket statement.
Here’s a brilliant article that offers empirically-tested proof that words means things!
Immigration activists, in particular, take note:
This potential to manipulate behavior by exploiting the brain’s literal-metaphorical confusions about hygiene and health is also shown in a study by Mark Landau and Daniel Sullivan of the University of Kansas and Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona. Subjects either did or didn’t read an article about the health risks of airborne bacteria. All then read a history article that used imagery of a nation as a living organism with statements like, “Following the Civil War, the United States underwent a growth spurt.” Those who read about scary bacteria before thinking about the U.S. as an organism were then more likely to express negative views about immigration.