Lost in the Reframing of Things

Language is the tool we use to reach agreement on things, but as tools go, it can be useless. Any tool can be turned into a weapon. It’s the opposite of beating swords into plowshares. You can, after all, pick up that broad metal plow and whack your enemy upside the head with it. And you can use words as weapons too.

S. I. Hayakawa – when he wrote about language, before he became that eccentric tap-dancing United States Senator from California – was fond of pointing out that you could conjugate adjectives – I am a brave and assertive, you are troublingly aggressive, and he is a flaming narcissistic asshole. As you move from first person to third person the adjective, for exactly the same thing, shifts to the negative. Childlike and childish denote the same behaviors, but opposite levels of approval. And marketers know this. Back in the fifties, fat seventh-grade boys wore jeans that were marketed as Husky. That sounded positive. And now these guys, in their sixties, wear Relaxed Fit jeans. That sounds better than Lard-Ass Jeans for Pathetic Fat Old Men. It’s all in how you say it.

And of course the master of this game is Frank Luntz – the man who provides the Republican Party with the appropriate words for the circumstance – you know, the Estate Tax is now the Death Tax and that sort of thing. Taxing the billions left to the idle children of the massively wealthy is now picking on folks who are in grief and should be left alone, if we had any decency at all. And now the Affordable Care Act – which pretty much forces everyone to buy health insurance from giant for-profit insurance companies without the government providing much of any services at all – is often called The Complete Government Takeover of the Healthcare System. Luntz was awarded the 2010 PolitiFact Lie of the Year award for that. But that only made him smile. His current company is called The Word Doctors. Think of him as Doctor Kevorkian.

But others can play that game, and Lawrence Weschler points out the danger behind certain analogies:

What if, instead of that playful word bubble, we tried something a bit more accurately descriptive when growth at any cost became the goal? Say, “tumor”: “the dot-com tumor,” “the subprime tumor,” “the derivatives tumor.” Would anyone seriously gainsay the highest possible vigilance over the proper functioning of their own body or doubt the need for strong regulation? Who, facing the prospect of a tumorous outbreak or living with a body demonstrably prone to such outbreaks, would entrust that body to a band of physicians blithely committed to laissez faire regarding these fatal bubbles of flesh?

Words matter. Metaphors frame thought. Pay them heed and tend them well.

Yes, how you frame things does matter – but these things have always been called bubbles, since the famous South Sea Bubble back in the early eighteenth century – a conversion of high-interest but difficult-to-trade debt into low-interest, readily marketable debt and shares of the South Sea Company – repackaging toxic assets – and all parties would get rich as these new shares in the South Sea Company soared.

That sounds familiar. And that bubble, or all the lame and absurd sub-bubbles, burst – and everyone lost everything. And that led to the Royal Exchange and London Assurance Corporation Act of 1719 (like the Securities and Exchange Commission we came up with in the thirties) – and also led to a cool Hogarth etching – and to the use of the term Bubble for when this sort of thing happens. Calling such things anything else is unlikely. Words matter, and they are metaphors that frame thought, but history matters more. We’re trapped into calling these things bubbles. And bubbles are nice, like Relaxed Fit jeans.

But you do have to get your history right, no matter how you conjugate your adjectives. For example, Tim Pawlenty recently claimed that Reagan’s tax cuts increased revenue “by almost 100 percent during his eight years as president.”

Does anyone remember that? Bruce Bartlett, who served under Reagan, points to the actual history here:

No one in the Reagan administration ever claimed that his 1981 tax cut would pay for itself or that it did. Reagan economists Bill Niskanen and Martin Anderson have written extensively on this oft-repeated myth. Conservative economist Lawrence Lindsey made a thorough effort to calculate the feedback effect in his 1990 book, The Growth Experiment. He concluded that the behavioral and macroeconomic effects of the 1981 tax cut, resulting from both supply-side and demand-side effects, recouped about a third of the static revenue loss.

Pawlenty needs to talk to Luntz. The Word Doctor needs to remind Pawlenty that the idea here is to reframe reality, not to make up an entirely imaginary alternative reality. But it was a nice try.

But the issue now is something else entirely. Do something about the stalled recovery and the fourteen million jobless, and the maybe ten million more who don’t get counted in the unemployment figures as they gave up trying to find work long ago, even if it means incurring more debt to get things rolling – or do something about the massive debt we’re already carrying, as that will ruin us, by shutting down as much of government as possible, even if that means doubling the number of unemployed and giving up on all social services and letting the elderly and poor fend for themselves or die. Take your choice.

And trying to frame that, Alan Blinder, writing in the Wall Street Journal, tries to thread the needle:

Suppose we enacted a modest fiscal stimulus program specifically designed for maximum job creation. My personal favorite is a tax credit for firms that add to their payrolls, but there are other options. And suppose we combined that with a serious plan for reducing future deficits – and enacted the whole package now. Then we could, in a sense, have our cake and eat it, too.

A package like that is not fantasy. I believe that a bipartisan group of economists, if given the authority, free of political interference, would design some version of it. But that’s not how budget decisions are, or should be, made. And as long as one political party clings to the idea that government spending kills jobs, it’s hard to see how we extricate ourselves from this mess.

It seems you cannot thread the needle. Government spending kills jobs? Who says? What is the evidence? That’s just Frank Luntz at work. And Andrew Sullivan adds this:

The notion that Herbert Hoover was right has become quite a dogged meme on the reality-challenged right. It’s bonkers.

Hey, use words as weapons long enough and someone is going to get hurt.

But sometimes someone will just ignore everyone’s framing devices – saying Husky jeans are for spoiled fatties – and just get to a new frame. And Brian Beutler offers an extraordinary example of that:

One of the most influential investors in the world of finance has a message for lawmakers – particularly conservative lawmakers – on Capitol Hill: rejoin the real world.

In a prospectus for clients, Bill Gross, a co-founder of investment management giant PIMCO, says members’ of Congress incessant focus on deficit – and in particular, the manner in which they obsess about deficits – is foolhardy, and a recipe for disaster. What the country needs, Gross said, is real stimulus now, and a measured return toward fiscal balance in the years ahead.

So he tells these guys to stop buying into their own bullshit and do the one now – stimulus – and then do the other later – debt reduction. This is not complicated, but Gross sees it may be impossible:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare. Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years. President Obama’s long-term budget makes just such a claim and Republican alternatives go many steps further. Former Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota might be the Republicans’ extreme example, but his claim of 5% real growth based on tax cuts and entitlement reductions comes out of left field or perhaps the field of dreams. The United States has not had a sustained period of 5% real growth for nearly 60 years.

This isn’t reframing. This is nonsense. And the idea here is that both parties are, in fact, moving to this kind of anti-Keynesian policy orientations, eager to deny additional stimulus and make what Beutler says are “rather awkward and unsubstantiated claims that if you balance the budget ‘they will come'” – like in the Costner fantasy baseball movie. But Gross hears what they’re saying:

It is envisioned that corporations or investors will somehow overnight be attracted to the revived competitiveness of the U.S. labor market: Politicians feel that fiscal conservatism equates to job growth. It’s difficult to believe, however, that an American-based corporation, with profits as its primary focus, can somehow be wooed back to American soil with a feeble and historically unjustified assurance that Social Security will be now secure or that medical care inflation will disinflate.

Admittedly, those are long-term requirements for a stable and healthy economy, but fiscal balance alone will not likely produce 20 million jobs over the next decade. The move towards it, in fact, if implemented too quickly, could stultify economic growth. Fed Chairman Bernanke has said as much, suggesting the urgency of a congressional medium-term plan to reduce the deficit but that immediate cuts are self-defeating if they were to undercut the still-fragile economy.

So Gross is recommending a swift, deficit-financed investment in infrastructure, like right now:

Government must take a leading role in job creation. Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed….

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is. Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009. An infrastructure bank to fund badly needed reconstruction projects is a commonly accepted idea, despite the limitations of the original “shovel-ready” stimulus program in 2009.


Unfortunately for Gross and those who share his concerns, the fight over the debt limit seems driven by Republicans hungry for long-standing ideological victories and Democrats cowed into an anti-stimulus fervor whipped up by the right. To many observers it appears that fixing the currently broken economy isn’t really what this is about.

And Josh Marshall points out this:

The hyper-attention to the country’s debt is supposed to be in reaction to the bond market, the people who buy our debt. But the biggest bond guy in the country is telling Congress that while getting the deficit/debt in order is important long term it’s simply crazy to think massive budget cutting is going to create the jobs or the growth the country needs. Unfortunately, that’s the mindset now of people on both sides of the aisle.

And Steve Benen is on the case:

It’s tempting to think Bill Gross’ perspective on the economy would be taken fairly seriously. After all, he’s the co-founder of investment management giant PIMCO and one of the most influential investors in the world.

But Benen knows that won’t happen:

I mention this, not because it’s new, but because it’s amazing that Wall Street giants, economists, and even many in the Fed all agree what the economy needs. And yet, their preferred prescription – significant public investment – is considered so beyond the pale that progressive policymakers don’t bother proposing it, and conservative policymakers scoff at the very idea of considering it.

Americans’ top concern, by far, is job creation and economic growth. The single best way to address the issue isn’t even on the table, thanks in part to Republican dominance of the discourse, progressive timidity, and the public’s conditioning to oppose “spending.”

This is why we can’t have nice things.

We cannot have nice things because of the public’s conditioning. We know of bubbles, not tumors, and total austerity – shutting everything down – assures prosperity. The Word Doctor has done his job.

But Digby has a different take – she documents how Bill Gross bears some responsibility “for deficit fever cranking up over the past few months.” It’s a bit wonky, but she is glad he changed his mind:

Luckily, he seems to have realized that he’s dealing with crazy people and feckless poltroons who would willingly take down the whole system if it meant getting Rush Limbaugh’s grudging approval and is now prescribing a real stimulus to boost demand (and fix our crumbling infrastructure in the bargain.)

Unfortunately, any stimulus seems to require that we give huge amounts of money to the wealthy in exchange. The latest brainstorm is a stimulus and “repatriation holiday” which allows corporations to “bring home” their profits from foreign countries without paying anything much in taxes on them and then passing them out as dividends to their shareholders.

She is not in favor of that and explains why, but on the new Gross position, she says this:

I’m sure that Bill Gross is now considered socialist, so who cares what he thinks?

Yes, it’s back to conjugating adjectives again – I’m a responsible citizen and involved in my community, you’re a busybody community organizer, and he’s a damned communist – a real socialist. It all lines up.

And this is not that easy, as David Leonhardt in the New York Times points out here:

Eventually, the country will have to confront the deficit we have, rather than the deficit we imagine. The one we imagine is a deficit caused by waste, fraud, abuse, foreign aid, oil industry subsidies and vague out-of-control spending. The one we have is caused by the world’s highest health costs (by far), the world’s largest military (by far), a Social Security program built when most people died by 70 – and to pay for it all, the lowest tax rates in decades.

To put it in budgetary terms, the deficit we imagine comes largely from discretionary spending. The one we have comes partly from discretionary spending but mostly from everything else: tax rates, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

So he argues this:

Taxes may be the toughest issue politically, but the mechanics of raising taxes are not all that difficult. As the 1990s demonstrated, the economy can grow rapidly even after a modest tax increase. As the last decade showed, a big tax cut doesn’t necessarily prevent mediocre growth.

Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury Department official, has pointed out … that average federal tax rates are “lower for most taxpayers than they have been since the 1960s.” The government could raise about $60 billion a year by letting the high-end Bush tax cuts lapse and tens of billions more by reducing tax breaks for companies and individuals.

On Social Security and Medicare, Washington could start by reducing benefits for the affluent – that is, the people who have received the biggest pay raises and tax cuts in recent years and whose life expectancy has risen the most. When conservatives like Mitch Daniels, Glenn Hubbard and Greg Mankiw talk about means-testing benefits, they’re talking about exactly this: making the programs more progressive.

Beyond means testing, the most promising strategy on health costs is probably a combination of conservative and liberal ideas.

Medicare could get more serious about refusing to pay for health care that doesn’t make people healthier, as the Obama administration has urged. The program could also introduce more incentives for people to choose cost-effective care, as Republicans prefer. Medicare’s problems are large enough that every plausible idea deserves a chance.

But none of that is going to happen. Medicare could get more serious about refusing to pay for health care that doesn’t make people healthier – and that would mean Death Panels of course. Every idea can be reframed.

And of course things are unbalanced:

But the problem with the current debate is just how much of the budgetary burden falls on a relatively small part of the government. It isn’t just any part of the government, either. It is the part that has the best record of turning today’s spending into tomorrow’s economic growth.

Tax cuts don’t deliver nearly the economic oomph that their advocates claim. Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, central to a decent society as they may be, certainly don’t do much to plant the seeds of future prosperity. Discretionary spending really can.

Discretionary spending let the Defense Department build the Internet. It let the National Institutes of Health finance life-saving research. It has helped make possible the semiconductor, the broadband network, the highway system and airports.

If we’re smart, we won’t just avoid damaging cuts. We will even find a way to increase forms of discretionary spending. As history has shown, economic growth remains the best deficit-reduction strategy of all.

And how likely is that? Nope – we’re locked in now. Everything has been framed and reframed and reframed again. We’ve used words as weapons for so long we cannot use them for anything else. Key people, like Bill Gross, may scream that this is nuts. But now, how can we tell? What you call nuts someone else just called responsible and principled. What you call heartless and cruel someone else just called Tough Love. What you see as a disaster looming someone else just said was an opportunity for a fresh start and true freedom for everyone – and on and on and on.

Language is the tool we use to reach agreement on things. It’s amazing it ever works.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Austerity Economics, Deficit Hawks, Economic Recovery, Frank Luntz, Republican Framing Devices and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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