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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Endless “austerity” framing

cameron-austerityApril 29, 2013 – The “austerity” frame currently dominates political and economic debate. How do we usefully describe the cognitive frame (as opposed to the calculated spin, sales pitch or rationalisation)? Here’s one view:

In conservative ideology, “austerity” isn’t a temporary economic measure, it’s a permanent moral imperative.

[Update, 14/11/13 – In the last few days, David Cameron has called for “permanent” austerity, to the surprise of many commentators.]

We’re talking about a cognitive frame

It’s like the “war on drugs”. No matter how overwhelming the evidence of failure, it will still be pursued as policy, because the alternative is routinely framed as immoral (see below for examples). The Wikipedia entry on economic austerity won’t tell you anything about this moral dimension, and most economics pundits will tell you little. Analysis of front-page newspaper stories and political speech can, however, tell us much…

Every day we’re presented with a false moral dichotomy: Austerity vs X. What is X? It’s both the disease whose cure is austerity, and the only available alternative to austerity. And it’s framed as being essentially immoral. X is “government waste” on “dependency culture”, “something-for-nothing culture”, “living beyond one’s means”, “spiralling welfare spending”, “benefit cheats”, “benefit tourists”, etc. Recipients of state “handouts” are placed on the moral spectrum somewhere between idle fecklessness and fraud/theft.

guardian-27-03-13This is the moral-metaphorical framing which has usurped the facts and figures. It doesn’t matter to the frame that the real costs of both welfare fraud and legitimate unemployment benefits (etc) are relatively low. As George Lakoff puts it, “frames trump facts”. Another way of putting it is that evidence-based reason is unlikely to prevail while moral outrage against X is triggered by headlines every few days.

The austerity frame combines with the economy-as-household metaphor, which Paul Krugman has described as follows:

The bad metaphor – which you’ve surely heard many times – equates the debt problems of a national economy with the debt problems of an individual family. A family that has run up too much debt, the story goes, must tighten its belt.

The result of this combination is that we think of austerity in terms of household activity (working, spending, borrowing, etc). This has two damaging consequences. First, it gives a false idea of how national economies work (as Krugman explains). Second (and most relevant here), it makes us think of economic-failure’s causes and solutions in terms of household behaviour. The problem with this is that household metaphors don’t fit the actions of banks which led to the financial collapse, or the steps which still need to be taken against the banks.

When economy-as-household metaphors are used repeatedly with the austerity frame, it becomes difficult to discuss the role of the banks – especially when communication is limited to soundbites. Opposition politicians tend to opt instead for the path of least resistance: “tough on welfare”. Or they repeat the “getting people back to work” line. Unfortunately, even the latter reinforces moral “austerity”. Why? Because worklessness is presented as the problem – particularly the behaviour of individuals and households with regard to “finding work”. The logic is as follows:

  1. Poverty/joblessness is viewed as moral failure of the individual.
  2. “Austerity” is the moral discipline that will punish these failures.
  3. Austerity means people can’t be “dependent” on benefits – they must alter
    their behaviour and “get back to work”.

The real giveaway about “austerity” is that not everyone is subjected to it. Those most deserving of austerity’s pain and punishment (eg banks and bankers) have escaped it. The financial institutions that are more dependent on state handouts than all “benefit scroungers” put together exist in a different compartment of media/political debate. After all, they are wealth-creators, job-creators – they are respectable, they wear suits, they make tons of money, and they reward political parties with it in various ways. This means they have the right kind of discipline. They don’t need the moral discipline of austerity. That’s reserved for the dirty scrounging peasants who are viewed as too feckless and idle to get a job.

The bottom line is that most conservative ideologues don’t really want austerity to end any more than they want the “WAR ON SCROUNGERS” headlines to end. Both are an integral part of the same conservative frame (or “ideology”). It isn’t new – the recent Philpott “vile product of welfare UK” case is preceded by countless others. In 1976, Ronald Reagan referred to a “Welfare Queen” who had supposedly received $150,000 in government handouts and was driving a “Welfare Cadillac”. The media could never find this person – it appeared to be a made-up stereotype.

Lakoff explains in technical terms why such stereotypes are readily adopted by our brains (“Prototype Theory”, “salient exemplars”, etc), but it boils down to existing “deep frames” which have been repeatedly reinforced:

Of course, what made this [stereotype] possible were strict father framings. First, there was the conservative logic that morality requires discipline, discipline in the market leads to prosperity, and lack of honest prosperity means laziness, lack of discipline, and therefore immorality. The Welfare Queen myth fit the frame – and would not have worked if it had not. (Lakoff, The Political Mind, Chapter 9)

Written by NewsFrames

April 29, 2013 at 8:20 am

2 Responses

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  1. Very interesting as usual – thanks. Good point about national economics thought of in terms of a household budget which is something we can readily understand. I think the Austerity message is so easily adopted precisely because it is so simple for people to comprehend; ‘common sense’, if you will. But as you say, the ‘no-alternative’ Austerity is still about choices, what we apply this Austerity to and what we don’t. And these choices are very telling.

    Cuts to public services which we all regularly use and need are being made everyday. Yet not replacing Trident, something that clearly we’ve never used, does not appear to be seriously considered by any major party (Scottish parties aside). Whether you agree with Trident renewal or not, the relatively quiet political consensus for its support given the current “Austerity” programme appears somewhat peculiar when considered in those ‘household’ savings terms.


    April 30, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    • Indeed. You never hear much about the huge overspends on military projects. The Eurofighter jet (a UK/European project) cost £50 billion (£30bn over budget and it finished a decade behind schedule – the cost to UK taxpayers was £20 billion, approximately £1,000 per household. (Source: BBC2 ‘Eurofighter’, 11 Nov 2003).

      And then there’s business fraud and fraud in Whitehall itself – the billions we tend not to hear about. When I researched these costs for an article several years ago, both were higher than welfare fraud. Even VAT fraud on mobile phones was higher than welfare fraud. http://www.anxietyculture.com/stats.htm


      May 2, 2013 at 6:17 pm

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