Today George Lakoff had a new piece on Michigan’s “right to work” law. I won’t go into that issue, but obviously the framing involved in the naming of a law that is diametrically opposed to “right to work” is worth examining. Instead I just want to quote a couple of particularly insightful (incite-ful?) paragraphs.
Progressives and conservatives have opposing views of democracy. For progressives, democracy is based on citizens caring about each other and acting responsibly on that care, with both individual and social responsibility, to provide through the government protection and empowerment for all. Government thus becomes a means by which citizens pay for public provisions to benefit all: public infrastructure (roads, bridges, hospitals, public buildings), public education, public health and safety (clean air, clean water, safe food, disease protection), a patent office to protection innovations, a justice system, and networks for energy, communication, and transportation. Without all these public provisions, we are not free: Business cannot thrive (if it can operate at all) and we cannot live decent, civilized private lives. It is a deep truth about our democracy: our freedom depends on such public provisions and the private depends on the public. Unions both defend these freedoms and add to them the worker rights unions have created.
Conservatives don’t accept this truth, if they perceive it at all. They tend to see democracy as providing “liberty” — the liberty to pursue one’s own interests and well-being through personal responsibility, without being responsible for the interests or well-being of others and without others being responsible for them.
From this conservative perspective, businessmen should have the liberty to run their businesses as they please to maximize their profit, and workers should rely on only their personal responsibility to get and keep a job. Unions, for conservatives, thus violate (1) the liberty of business owners to offer workers what is most profitable for the business, (2) the personal responsibility of workers, and (3) the liberty conservatives think workers should have to work without paying union dues.
From the progressive perspective, the new Michigan law is a corporate servitude law, while from the conservative perspective, the law is a “right to work” law.
Again, I do not want to debate the new law or the role of unions (full disclosure, I agree with Lakoff). Instead, what I want to do is to emphasize Lakoff’s take on the progressive view of democracy and government. As I said in the closing blog on the alternative meme for money, all of us, everywhere, deserve better government. But I cannot see a better alternative to democracy. And the conservative view that we’d all be better with less—or no—government is, as Keynes would put it, “crazily improbable”. It has no evidence to support it. It is ideology—or morality—with nothing to support it.
Conservatives, including so far as I can determine most commentators in the blog-o-sphere, take the view that government reduces freedom, defined as the ability to do whatever one wants. Progressives emphasize the positive role for government: government helps us to care for ourselves and others, which vastly increases our freedom. Note I said “role for government”; we are not naïve—we do not imagine that government is only positive, it is government’s role but government doesn’t necessarily perform its role. Democracy is the best way we know to try to encourage government to do good. We are not always successful. It is not “natural” it results only from our will.
For the conservative, however, this is all silly. Government is run by individuals, each of whom is out to protect his own interest and screw everyone else. There is no such thing as “citizens caring about each other and acting responsibly on that care, with both individual and social responsibility, to provide through the government protection and empowerment for all”. For the conservative that is not only impossible, but also undesirable. The Hobbesian ideal is dog eat dog, dog eat man, man eat dog, and ultimately man eat man.
There were several hundred comments to this series on the meme for money. A large proportion pushed the conservative meme. Not surprising. Across every blog site I’ve written for, conservative commentary tends to dominate. For these readers, the entire purpose of this series was anathema. As I made clear, I was providing advice to progressives: how to frame discussion of money to further the progressive agenda. Obviously, conservatives would oppose that. Many simply register their objections openly, others try the “why can’t we all just get along” defence. Well, because if progressives adopt conservative framing they will lose policy debates.
Yes, I understand (and agree with) the claim that MMT has something for everyone (remember, I wrote that MMT is for Austrians, too!). No matter how conservative you are, you need to touch base with reality now and then, and so a truthful description of the monetary system can be useful. If you’ve only got “angels on pinheads” you don’t have much for policymakers. So conservatives can learn a lot from MMT, and can use their conservative framing to ensure their own policy implications from MMT are consistent with conservative morality. That is fine. You don’t need my advice. And you won’t get it.
There were also various objections to modern money theory, itself, as a description. These comments were just dredging up dead issues, things covered many times by advocates of MMT. Others disagreed with progressive policy recommendations. But neither of these topics were the subject of the series. As I said, I was taking MMT as well as a progressive policy stance for granted, with a view to discussing the proper framing for progressives (and especially for those who know and accept MMT but who have not been successful in framing the issues).
There were also a number of comments complaining that this particular series was not aimed at the “man in the street” level. Of course it was not—it was aimed at progressives who understand the theory and the issues. We’ve been trying to aim the theory at the general audience for years, not always successfully. In my view that is in part due to framing. We need to back up and get the framing right.
So, again, most of these comments were off-topic.
There were, however, a few relevant and good comments. I think we all need to step back and take some time to digest some of the proposed memes contained in those comments. In case you missed it, I think this particular comment, by “AJ” was particularly insightful:
I too struggled for a while wondering if MMT is just a load of bullocks. You would think something this important would be subscribed to by more people. At that point I tried to find as many articles and posts I could find on why MMT was not true, and I could not find one article or post that could logically point out any faults. The argument against MMT usually starts off by someone just flat out saying something like, “you can’t just create money out of thin air.” This point MMT easily proves false, and you can get most people to concede this point fairly easily. The next hurdle is inflation, which usually gets expressed as the argument, “but, but but, ZOMG inflations!!111!, Zimbabwe, Weimer Germany!1!1!!” This argument can be countered by explaining how increasing demand when an economy is under capacity increases supply. That price only goes up (inflation) when supply can’t keep up with demand. This explanation is more difficult to get across, because the person must be somewhat familiar with econ 101 supply and demand. Most people who value intellectual honesty will now concede both of these points to you. Now you are up against ideology: “We have to impose all these rules to limit federal spending, because if we didn’t the Congresscritters will just spend money all willy-nilly on whatever projects they want.” It is this conservative mistrust of giving congress too much power that prevents us from giving them enough power to do what should be done. This is why Randy is looking for an alternative framework: to help win the moral argument.
There are several reasons this is not more mainstream. First and foremost it requires a lot more economics knowledge than most people have. Your average Joe could care less about reading Randy’s MMT Primer or understanding exactly how the Fed and Treasury conduct monetary operations. The reason that you don’t see more academics jump on the bandwagon is that mainstream economics has a vested interest in maintaining its status quo. As Steve Keen frequently points out, mainstream economics completely ignores the private banking sector. As incredulous as that sounds to a non-academic, it is completely true. For example take Paul Krugman’s comment “Now, I’m all for including the banking sector in stories where it’s relevant; but why is it so crucial to a story about debt and leverage?” If you don’t know why Krugman is wrong, go to Keen’s website and watch a few of his lectures. Economics is still a relatively young discipline, it is hard to set up experiments to confirm or hypotheses and real world scenarios play out over decades or centuries, not days or months. There is really only 1 other depression with which to compare the current one, and an experiment with 2 observations doesn’t really lend itself to developing hard and fast theories. What Randy and the rest of the MMTers at UMKC and elsewhere have done is resurrect theories that were discarded during the “great moderation” and update and expand on them.
Expect to see more people accept MMT over the course of the next few years. Especially if we start double-dipping in 2013.
Yep. That’s all on the right track, so far as I see it. Let’s take a long vacation from the theory and even from the policy. Let’s come back in 2013 with better framing. While it would be nice if we could distil MMT down to a single nice catchphrase, I do not think that is possible. Money is hard stuff. It is contentious. It is layered under tons of misunderstanding and misinformation. We have to peel back those layers. We need to get to the core, or rather cores (there are certainly many).
And we need to refine the progressive memes. Indeed, we probably need to identify what is progressive. This is tough—far more difficult than uncovering how money actually works.
Getting the right framing requires understanding how the mind works—likely more complex than how our monetary system works. I can accurately and (relatively) simply explain how the government spends. But I cannot understand, much less explain, how individuals react to that explanation. I am perplexed beyond comprehension how a simple description of “monetary operations” triggers the “Weimar” response in a large part of the population—importantly a population so young that even their grandparents and great-grandparents could have had no significant personal experience with hyperinflation. How is the virulent Weimar virus propagated from brain to brain over so many generations? I do not know. Are there anti-bodies to the virus? I do not know. Why are a few immune to the deadly disease? Is it education? I doubt it. Upbringing? Perhaps. Genes? I hope not. And so on for all the other conservative viruses afflicting thought.
Lakoff argues that language has a lot to do with the propagation of the virus. Once infected, the brain thinks through the metaphor. He’s identified many of the metaphors often invoked:
The simplest, is the metaphor named MoreIsUp, which is a neural circuit linking two distinct brain regions, one for verticality and one for quantity. It is a high-level general metaphor widespread throughout the world, and occurs in a vast number of sentences like “turn the radio up,” “the temperature fell,” and so on… Why is economic activity conceptualized as motion? Because a common conceptual metaphor is being used: ActivityIsMotion, as in sentences like “The project is moving along smoothly,”…The common metaphor TheFutureIsAhead accounts for why the motion is “forward.”…In a diagram of changes over time in a stock market or the GDP, the metaphor used is ThePastIsLeft and TheFutureIsRight…
I realize this goes against the grain. We all like to think of ourselves as “rational”, “logical”. But we’ve known at least since the time of Sigmund Freud that that is not true at all. The mind takes on a life of its own, so to speak. It is mostly out of control. Our control, that is. The viruses got it.
In discussing the fiscal cliff metaphor and all the discussion about the need to get the nation’s “fiscal house in order”, Lakoff goes on:
The Austerity Frame is about self-denial. As used in Europe, it assumes two conceptual metaphors, TheNationalBudgetIsAFamilyBudget and TheNation’sWealthIsTheGovernment’sCashOnHand. Both are terribly misleading. Great Britain is richer than it has ever been, just as America is, if you count the total wealth of their corporations and citizens. The nations are far from broke, but the requisite money is not in the government’s coffers. A family budget is nothing like a national budget, because the nation has vastly more resources and possibilities than any typical family. These are the austerity metaphors….Austerity implies a long-term responsible form of self-denial that makes your situation better….
Can you kill the austerity virus with cold, hard facts? Of course not. You see facts through the fog of viruses that infected your brain. Keystrokes? Zimbabwe!
You need a better meme. And we’ve got to start from the ground up. Focusing on the description of money will fail. Even if we focus on the desired policy outcome, we will fail. We have to start with morals. I still think Springsteen has got the starting point: We take care of our own. We is all of us. Our own is all of us. We are all of us in this together. We take care of our own.