Monday, April 23, 2007


Another installment in the debate on Framing is going on in various parts of the left blogesphere triggered by this Op-ed by Matthew Nisbit and Chris Mooney. Tristero over at Hullaboloo has offered this and this, critical of what Nisbit and Mooney wrote. For a different perspective read Mark Chu-Carroll over at Good Math, Bad Math.

There is a lot to the debate, and I'll have more to say on the science aspects in a future post, but part of the debate is simply a matter of what is meant by Framing. Meteor Blades over on Kos sums up the possible, conflicting meanings, here, in a post on the Partial Birth Abortion ruling by the Supreme Court this week. To quote from Meteor Blades:

Many people hate the term "framing." I understand at least one of their fears: framing can turn into an excuse to substitute marketing for principles. In other words, instead of a technique to get a right-on message across, framing can dilute the message, contaminate and weaken the principle. In order to be more persuasive, what we're trying to be more persuasive about gets partially junked. It's a reasonable worry.

Other people, of course, argue that framing is merely a euphemism for marketing, which is a euphemism for manipulation, and no way in hell should progressive politics be marketed because to do so means selling out to the perniciously unprogressive idea that people should be manipulated into accepting any point of view.

Who can argue that we shouldn't manipulate people? Manipulation implies lying, and nothing could be less progressive than that.

I think that does sum up a major question with regard to Framing. Does it make the message more clear and powerful, or is it just hand waving and deception. Well, clearly you can just do deceptive marketing. But I think that it is also possible, with many of our progressive arguments to make them much more powerful and much more accurate, if we would review the language we use and the way we frame issues.

Consider, for example, the way we progressives discuss taxation and spending. For illustrative purposes I will pick one company, Disney from this report, who paid no taxes in 2003. The no taxes issues makes the argument clearer, but the same case may be made with regards to other extremely low rates. Now the progressive community will argue that Disney should pay more taxes, often saying implicitly, if not explicitly, that the reason is, Disney has the money. Then the money should be spent on education say, because the people being provided student loans say, need the money. Now these statements are true, Disney does have the money and the recipients do need the money. Often, the progressive argument does not get much beyond these reasons. However as a means of persuading people to support a policy the reasons have enjoyed less success than we progressives would have enjoyed. (Consider the last six years)

I would argue that one could restate the case, without sacrificing anything of accuracy or honesty, in the following way. Disney corporation enjoys services of enormous value provided by the United States of America. Consider only the fact that the USA serves to secure the copyrights and trademarks of the Disney corporation. This service alone is worth billions of dollars to the corporation. In addition the US protects physical assets, financial assets, and via the ability to incorporate sharply reduces the otherwise enormous liability Disney would have. These services are worth a great deal, and so as a part of the economy, it would be perfectly fair for the US to charge a fairly substantial price for these services. In short, we could argue that the reason for taxing Disney is to charge them for services rendered. Now to be fair, progressives do sometimes point out that the very wealthy enjoy great benefits from our society. Rarely, however, are these benefits spelled out clearly and explicitly. They should be.

The second half of the progressive plan can, as I said, be described as a means of aiding those who can't afford college education. This is true. It is equally true, that if the United States of America is to be able to provide the rather outstanding security services it provides, that it needs to have a number of things. I would describe these things as:
  • Infrastructure of
    1. Transportation
    2. Communication
    3. Power distribution
  • A population that is
    1. Broadly prosperous
    2. Well educated
    3. Generally healthy
    4. Economically secure
Notice item 2 of the second bullet. To provide the excellent services we do to the likes of Disney corporation we really need to have a population that is well educated. Spending money to achieve that end is another perfectly accurate explanation for funding student loans

In short we can, as we often do, describe our progressives plans in terms of taking from the well-to-do in order to help poorer parts of society. And I am not advocating that we must stop doing so. This is a fine frame, but one of limited appeal. I am suggesting that we also use the equally accurate frame of charging for services rendered and spending so as to be able to continue providing those services.

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