Tag Archives: framing

Framing the Wrong Argument

I like David Brooks. I even agree with a significant part of what he writes. But his column in yesterday’s New York Times not only missed the boat, it swam in the wrong ocean.

Brooks characterized the Obama ads attacking Romney’s performance at Bain as an attack on capitalism, and essentially framed the current Presidential race as a contest between “big government” and “capitalism.” This is wrong on so many counts, it’s hard to know where to begin.

I am an ardent believer in capitalism and free markets.  In my opinion, Mitt Romney is the poster boy for a destructive and distorted vision of market economics that is giving capitalism its current bad name.

The sort of capitalism that works, the capitalism that originally made this country the most productive in the world, is characterized by transparency and a level playing field. Transparency means marketplaces with willing buyers and willing sellers who both possess the information relevant to their transaction. There are obviously areas–like healthcare–where that sort of information symmetry is impossible; in such areas, markets cannot work. Markets work extremely well, however, when buyers and sellers both have access to sufficient information on which to base their economic behavior.

The metaphor of a level playing field goes well beyond parity of information, however. A level playing field requires rules against cheating–and authorities willing and able to enforce those rules. Crony capitalism is the antithesis of a level playing field. Gaming the system by sending your lobbyists to Washington to buy influence, obtain favorable tax treatment, gut regulations and subsidize your endeavors are hallmarks of oligarchy. Such behaviors bear no relationship to a true market economy.

The notion that Mitt Romney represents true capitalism is delusional. So, for that matter, is the charge that Obama represents “big government.” As even the Wall Street Journal has conceded, growth in government spending under the Obama administration has been the lowest since the Eisenhower administration. The charge of “big government” rests on two aspects of Obama’s presidency: the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and his continuation of George W. Bush’s policies on surveillance and national security.

I agree with critics of Obama’s national security policies. Those policies infringed civil liberties when Bush inaugurated them, and they are no less ill-conceived and dangerous simply because the President pursuing them can pronounce “nuclear.” But the widespread belief that the ACA is anti-capitalist and pro “big government” rests on the same fundamental misapprehension as Brooks’ column: that anything done by the private sector is by definition “capitalism.”

The basic question to be answered when constructing a government is: what is its role? What tasks must we do collectively,through this governing mechanism we have created, and what tasks should be left to individuals, businesses and/or nonprofit organizations?

In areas where markets work, we should let them. But there are areas where markets don’t work, or work only with substantial assistance. Think public safety, national defense, infrastructure provision. Healthcare is an area where markets demonstrably do not work and have not worked. Every other western industrialized nation has come to that conclusion. The cost of ignoring that reality is draining our treasury and increasing the inequities that are splintering our polity.

Recognition of reality is sanity, not preference for “big government.”

If we really need to frame the electoral choice we face, I’d suggest “a contest between ‘I’ve got mine’ and the common good.”

The Power of Framing

During one hour of television tonight, I heard four repetitions of an ad in which Mitch Daniels explains that “this one simple law”–the deceptively named Right to Work law–will bring jobs to Indiana, and keep people from being forced to pay union dues. It was extremely well done.  Once during that hour,  I saw a much less persuasive ad calling Right to Work an “attack on working people.” Daniels had specific points to make; the opposing ad simply claimed the bill would be bad for workers. Advantage: Daniels.

Unfortunately for the policy process, Daniels’ specific points were simply untrue. The union ad would have been considerably more effective had it pointed that out.

Let’s begin with the way the administration is framing this issue. People shouldn’t be “forced” to pay “dues or fees” as a condition of employment. Put that way, it seems like a very reasonable position. But let’s ask a slightly different–and arguably more accurate–question: should some people be forced to provide services to their co-workers for free?

Let’s try an analogy: Let’s say you are a dues-paying member of a social club, and a guy you know says he want to come to the parties and enjoy the refreshments, but he doesn’t want to join the club. Fine, you say, just pay for your food and drink. But the visitor doesn’t even want to do that–indeed, he is highly offended by the suggestion.

That’s what Right to Work is really about–letting some folks “mooch” off the efforts of others.

Under current labor laws, no one has to join a union. But if you go to work in a union shop, you are required to pay your fair share of the costs of negotiation–your share of the amount paid to the people who represent you in dealings with management. You are required to pay for a benefit you receive. That’s it.

A lot of claims are being made by those who want to see this law passed, and most of them are either blatantly untrue or incredibly misleading. For example, the National Right to Work Committee has issued a “Fact Sheet” claiming–among other things–that job growth in Indiana was slower than the average job growth of Midwest states with Right to Work laws. Daniels echoes that assertion in his TV ad– but the claim is “true” only because one of those states is North Dakota, where oil fields were recently discovered, leading to a huge boom. If you exclude North Dakota, the remaining Right to Work States averaged a net job loss. Similarly, the Committee lauds Texas, a Right to Work state, for its job creation during the past decade–without bothering to mention that Texas’ job growth was all in the public sector, and entirely due to the growth of government–Texas private sector actually lost jobs during the past decade.

Other claims were similarly misleading. Independent research–as I noted in a previous post--finds absolutely no relationship between job creation and Right to Work laws, either positive or negative. The only documented effect of such laws is to weaken unions and reduce wages for both union and non-union workers.

So–one might ask–why is the Governor so determined to enact this legislation that he is willing to spend a fortune airing highly misleading TV ads? Why is he so intent upon ramming this through that he was willing to impose “safety” regulations that would keep union members from filling the Statehouse, until the public outcry made him rethink that tactic? The only reason I can think of is because such laws hurt unions, and unions generally support Democrats. It’s purely political.

But you’ve got to give Daniels and the Republicans credit: they are one hell of a lot better at framing this issue than the Democrats are in explaining it.