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The economic “growth” frame – and its opposition

shibuya-graffiti-683-compressedAug 27, 2014 Outside of governments and corporations, the pursuit of economic growth is no longer taken for granted – some commentators are challenging the orthodoxy. But the “growth” concept has deep roots, and in its absence we have what George Lakoff calls “hypocognition”, a lack of established frames enabling us to think differently about the economy. Cognitive-linguistics studies have even suggested that direct opposition to “growth” may be counterproductive for those who oppose it.

Promoters of “economic growth”, together with their opponents (eg “degrowth” and most “post-growth” adherents*), share the same starting premise – that something called “the economy” has a meaningful single measure (“growth”, GDP, etc) which should either be increased or not, depending on the respective view.

Both views (pro- and anti- “growth”) tend to reinforce aspects of market ideology as a consequence of this shared premise. To understand why – particularly in the case of Greens – we need to look closely at what the “growth” frame brings to economic thought.

Since we don’t want “to confuse the map with the territory”, it seems a good idea to briefly recall the human-level terrain – the unthinkably diverse activities, communications, materials (or “resources”), processes, “products”, “services”, skills, know-how, information access, etc – all of which have different, and largely irreconcilable, “measures” – and all of which we contrive to aggregate into a single object, or entity, called “the economy”.

Okay, now back to the abstractions which govern us.

Framing economic “growth”

Economics at a “macro” level is, by necessity, a construct of models and metaphor. The conceptual metaphors we use to think about “the economy” bring their own weird logic to the party – mostly from domains more concrete than macroeconomics. This is no trivial matter, as metaphoric frames define the dominant economic worldviews.

Even the basic notion of economic “growth” shapes our thinking along metaphoric lines – in this case, the “natural” growth of a living organism, which is source domain for the growth-as-increase metaphor (“more is growth”).

“Growth” might seem to be merely a dead metaphor – ie one which is conventionalised (or “lexicalised”). But, as Michael White points out (in Metaphor and economics: the case of growth): “despite this lexicalisation, when economists and journalists deal with economic performance, the metaphoric sense of growth is highly active“. (My emphasis)

This seems an important point – and worth emphasising, particularly for those who aren’t familiar with the field of conceptual metaphor. What it means is that various ideas are imported automatically – and largely unconsciously – from the “growth” metaphor into our attempts to think quantitatively about “the economy”. For example:

  1. Growth tends to be conceptualised as natural and good. This deeply positive sense is universal, and is imported into our conception of quantitative increase in economics via the metaphor. It’s not just a superficial “surface language” matter.
  2. Conversely, absence of growth is conceptualised as bad and unnatural – eg due to adverse conditions, or to interference with the natural process. The list of examples of economic metaphor expressing this fundamentally negative, unnatural aspect of “no-growth” seems endless in our culture. One interesting example I’ve previously written about is economic “flatlining”, in which “flat growth” metaphorically signifies death. The negative connotations of no-growth aren’t overt here – they’re entailments of the metaphor.

So deeply established is the “natural growth” metaphor (and its negative obverse) that we might find it hard to think in positive terms about “the economy” without it. Or, as Anna Gustafsson puts it (in The Metaphor Challenge of Future Economics), “We may even have difficulties in conceptualizing a society not built upon growth; this is visible in our language.”

(Note: There are a few exceptional cases where growth is regarded as bad in its source domain – eg disease and obesity. The phrase, “obese economy”, might have satiric potential, and “cancerous economic growth” makes a point about growth with no end. But I suspect that if Frank Luntz found that his opposition was framing economic growth as “disease” or “cancer”, he’d clap his hands and take the day off. The implication would be of humanity as disease – presumably not a frame that Greens would be keen on promoting.)

“It’s the economy, stupid”, stupid

green-growth-compressedBoth “growth” and “the economy” are what Lakoff calls ontological metaphors. They enable us to think about unthinkably multifarious phenomena (eg all the things “of value” that people do) in terms of “discrete entities or substances of a uniform kind”. This isn’t about “mere language”, but about how people think. The “price we pay” is to be stuck with crude, reductive (eg two-valued) logics, eg growth/no-growth. And it doesn’t help much to change the definition of “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP), or to divide “the economy” into sectors – it simply applies the same binary logic to slightly different, or smaller, entities.

Of course, there have been many conventional criticisms of GDP (and GNP) as a “measure” – eg that it confuses different types of “growth”, and doesn’t reflect (unequal) distribution, environmental damage, etc. These criticisms have been around for a while – some of them were made by Simon Kuznets, the economist who originally developed the ideas behind GDP.

“Economic growth” was first adopted by governments as national policy objective after the introduction of GDP (1940s-1950s) – not for its own sake, but as an approach towards achieving “full employment” (a point I’ll return to). Peter Victor, an ecological economist, has argued (Nature, 18/11/2010) that because “growth”, as a government objective, is a relatively new notion, “dethroning it seems less improbable.”

From a cognitive frames perspective, that seems optimistic. “Growth” is a “deep frame” – its use and extension in economics goes back at least as far as 18th century classical economics (although not as government policy). But, most significantly, it’s been a key feature of saturation-level business propaganda for decades, since political strategists first noticed, or vaguely intuited, that “economic growth” and market ideology are mutually reinforcing.

That means the frame has been hammered into our skulls relentlessly, repeatedly – in all kinds of ways, without pause or break – for much of our lives. This is why Lakoff and his colleagues often bring neuroscience and the physical brain into the equation. If it were just a question of “pure”, disembodied ideas, we could drop the idea, or belief system, immediately, erase it from our minds and replace it with a new one. But we know it doesn’t work like that.

“Since the synapses in neural circuits are made stronger the more they are activated, the repetition of ideological language will strengthen the circuits for that ideology in a hearer’s brain. […] ideological language repeated often enough can become ‘normal language’ but still activate that ideology unconsciously in the brains of citizens – and journalists.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)

“Growth” frame reinforces market logic

Market ideology holds profit maximisation to be a moral good, and interference in the market (eg by government) to be a moral ill. Both notions combine easily with the “economic growth” frame. Firstly, with the latter’s entailment of total increase as a “natural” good, regardless of the divisions, precise characteristics or manner of distribution of that increase; and, secondly, of interruptions or interferences with “growth” viewed as unnatural and inherently nefarious.

Market logic on labour is reinforced by the notion of “growth”, also. This logic regards labour as “a natural resource or commodity, on a par with raw materials”, to quote Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors we live by), who argue that uniformity – or interchangeability – is implied by the metaphor of labour as material resource. Overall “productivity growth” is the criterion – the well-being of the worker doesn’t enter into the equation.

trolley-growth-compressedAnother aspect of market ideology reinforced by the “growth” frame is the heroic individualist entrepreneur fairy tale. “Growth” as a personal or individual-business metaphor seems unproblematic, but when we reflexively conceive of “the economy” as an object with an attribute of “growth”, the entrepreneur idea extends to it “naturally” because of the “good growth” frame. This is the myth that practically all wealth/”growth” derives from entrepreneurial enterprise, which is heroically fighting against “unnatural” interference to growth (eg from governments, “do-gooders”, Green activists, etc).

In fact, corporate market ideology and “economic growth” framing seem so closely intertwined that the mutual reinforcement appears seamless and largely invisible – unless it’s pointed out. Perhaps the most obvious example for most people would be “trickle-down economics” – the idea that as long as “the economy” is “growing”, all those minor inconveniences like mass poverty and corporate monopoly will “naturally” sort themselves out.

The inverse is “mutual inhibition” between “economic growth” and policies which oppose corporate-market domination. Perhaps this explains why the idea of a “leisure society” seemed to grow weaker in our society during the period in which the dogmatic pursuit of “economic growth” grew stronger. As mentioned above, “growth” was originally adopted as a government measure/policy for the purpose of achieving “full employment”. This situation now seems to have reversed, with “economic growth” regarded as an end itself, and “job creation” (at all costs) as a putative (and usually dubious) means to serve that end.

“Degrowth” and “post-growth”

Obviously, these terms express little more than negation of “growth”. Lakoff, as we know, advises that direct negation of a frame merely activates that frame, but this might seem like a trite formula to those who fervently oppose any further economic “growth”. And judging by the frequent use of these “de-” and “post-” terms in various Green projects and proposals, the advice has either been overlooked or misunderstood.

Any use of these terms (eg as proposals, without quotes) tends to imply (and communicate) the premises that I’ve described above, which market-ideological views thrive upon. GDP (or any alternative single “measure” of “growth” of “the economy”) is, by definition, bought into. It’s simply a “for” or “against” inversion according to the narrow terms of the worldview which created the problem.

“Green growth”

I’ve seen differing definitions of “green growth”, but they all start with the conventional premise of overall “growth” in “the economy”, and its inherent two-valued logic. Some “de-” and “post-” “growth” adherents oppose “green growth” by using the argument that any society (historic or modelled), regardless of how “green”, will show correlation between rising GDP and environmental damage. (Some studies have indicated that this correlation does indeed apply).

That seems a good argument against continuous pursuit of “growth” (eg rising GDP) in even the most greenly-imagined society – but only if you accept that a single aggregate “measure” of “growth” in “the economy” isn’t a nonsense to begin with.

A better frame? – Wealth as well-being

“[T]here is a crucial movement toward a new economics – an economics of well-being, in which the Gross Domestic Product is replaced by an overall indicator of well-being. This new perspective is directly counter, in many ways, to the narrowly imagined concept of economic growth.” (George Lakoff, Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment)

Promoting an economics based on well-being and its indicators has the advantage, from a cognitive frames perspective, that wealth as well-being is a very deeply rooted – and universal – metaphoric frame. Our original conceptions of “wealth” are inseparable from expressions of well-being.

The problems of hypocognition posed by negation of “growth” thus seem partly averted when we envisage a system of economic indicators based on the existing deep frame of wealth as well-being.

To give a ‘concrete’ example: Work evaluated in terms of the well-being of the worker, as opposed to employment policy made on the sole basis of boosting “growth”. If economic ends are primarily framed in terms of well-being, not abstract “growth”, this makes sense. The subjective experience of the worker is barely considered at all by governments and corporations fixated on “growth”.

With well-being central to economic thinking, things like leisure and quality of life “naturally” come to the fore. Policies previously avoided because they don’t provide “growth” will be considered if they boost well-being. Interestingly, some of the research into how societies might function without “growth” have found that greater leisure and reduction of poverty may be key elements (together with reduction in the use of fossil fuels, materials, etc) – even without any focus on well-being as a criterion.

More leisure, less anxiety

In the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin predicted we’d soon work a 4-hour week. In 1965, a US Senate subcommittee predicted a 22-hour work week by 1985, and a mere 14 hours by 2000. Paul and Percival Goodman, in the 1960s, estimated that just 5% of the work being done would satisfy our food, clothing and shelter needs.

What happened to the dream of a leisure society made possible by more-for-less efficiencies in know-how and technology? The conventional answer is that productivity increases were channeled into a spiral of greater consumerism and more work, rather than into increased leisure. And the conventional reason is the massive propaganda push from big business to sell the consumerist culture.

Less conventional a reason, but probably just as important, is the moral framing of work in our society. As David Graeber puts it, “there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. Which is constantly being reinforced by the larger society. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and the feeling that it is best avoided whenever possible.”

Economic “growth” is tied into the “full employment” narrative, and has been since the 1950s. This is where I see an interesting leverage point for change – in terms of broad public acceptance of a new economic worldview. Not in terms of “growth” abstractions (for or against), but towards a greater emphasis on free time, leisure, contentment, happiness, fulfilment – rather than more work, more stuff to buy.

That, and less anxiety. Anxiety seems epidemic in our society – much of it related to work and income. That’s why I see a need for something like a Universal Basic Income to accompany a shift in attitudes away from “more work at all costs” consumerism (or “growth”), and towards an embrace of a time-rich leisure society for all.

* Note: Some “post-growth” and “degrowth” adherents do question the validity of GDP, and argue for alternative measures, etc. But the post-growth and degrowth literature typically proposes reduction or stabilisation of overall “growth” of “the economy” (in other words, it accepts the premise of a single measure of “growth”). 1/9/2014

Graphics by NewsFrames

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August 27, 2014 at 8:37 am

Iraq War Framing for Dummies

iraq-war-for-dummiesMarch 12, 2013The war on Iraq was planned and sold with metaphorical framing. The bombs and deaths weren’t metaphors, but the discourse was – and still is – largely metaphorical.

“Liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk”
– Kenneth Adelman (Defense Policy Board, 13/02/02)

In an essay published in 1991, George Lakoff listed the following as among the main metaphors in the cognitive framing of war:

• War as business
State as person (“National interest”)
“Rational Actor” model & Faux Darwinism
Fairy Tale of the Just War (“Rescue” or “self-defense”)

The first three listed occur repeatedly in the thinking of strategists, foreign policy advisers, international relations experts, etc – who almost certainly regard this thinking as natural and literal (rather than metaphorical).

The fourth listed (“Fairy Tale of the Just War”) is the metaphorical frame used to justify the war to the public. A different frame is used when a war is initiated by an official enemy: War as Crime (murder, assault, rape, theft, etc). Finally, the military has its own additional framing, which occasionally appears in media discourse, eg: War as Medicine (“surgical strikes”), War as Competitive Game, etc.

War as Business

The idea that war serves state/corporate interests seems commonplace, but killing for power & profit appears – to virtually everyone – as such an abhorrently immoral notion, that it must be denied (eg by politicians and other “respectable” people of influence). Thus, the connection between, say, OIL and the invasion of Iraq, whether dismissed or acknowledged, isn’t couched in such terms.

“The action has nothing to do with oil or any of the other conspiracy theories put forward”
(Tony Blair, speaking to parliament on Iraq)

“I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” (Alan Greenspan, Former Chair of Federal Reserve)

The War as Business frame allows strategists, politicians, etc, to think/talk about war (mostly away from the public gaze) in terms of “rational” “costs” and “gains”. It’s a way of thinking that probably seems “natural” to the participants, as it relies on metaphorical conceptions they’re familiar with – from “conventional” politics, business and economics. Here’s a brief description of how it fits together…

1. In market economics, it’s “natural” to think of individuals pursuing their own “self-interest” according to the “rational actor” model – eg weighing up “losses” against “gains”, deciding whether a given action is “worth it” in quantifiable terms of accounting. Pursuing one’s self-interest in a competitive world is regarded as a good thing – a rational thing – in this economic worldview.

Cartoon by Carlos Latoff - click for his blog2. A nation has no literal “self” or “self-interest” – it’s an abstraction (defined in various terms). However, we routinely use a Nation as Person (or State as Person) metaphor to think about these “national” abstractions. One example is thinking about “national interest”. Inferences from market economics are mapped onto “national interest” as if it’s isomorphic to the economic “self-interest” of a person.

3. An important feature of this metaphorical framing is what it hides – what it excludes from attention – when the metaphors are routine and unconscious. To give an extreme example, the business section of the New York Times referred to the first Gulf War as having been a “bargain” (since the “costs” of the war were regarded as low – these “costs” were “US assets” and didn’t include the lives of Iraqis or the damage to Iraq).

Could paying for the Persian Gulf war prove as easy a ride for Americans as fighting it?
(‘The Big Spoils From a Bargain War’ – New York Times, 3/3/91)

There’s a lot of money to pay for this… oil revenues of Iraq could bring between $50 and $100 billion over the course of the next two or three years… We’re dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction. (Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Defense Secretary, 27/3/03)

State as person

The self-interest of a person is to be healthy, strong, etc. In the State as Person metaphor, the “national interest” is to be economically healthy and militarily strong. Relentlessly pursuing one’s self-interest is seen as “rational” in market economics, and it’s regarded as rational for a state to always maximise its wealth and military power. Not only is it “rational” in this metaphorical system – it’s also regarded as a moral good. The nation-person standing on its own feet, fending for itself – unlike the “weak”, “undeveloped” nations which haven’t successfully pursued their national interest, and which are thus reliant on handouts (“aid“, etc).

“They [US forces] are there as an expression of the American national interest to prevent the Iranian combination of imperialism and fundamentalist ideology from dominating a region on which the energy supplies of the industrial democracies depend.” (Henry Kissinger, 18/01/07)

What is hidden by the State as Person metaphor? Divisions of religion, ethnicity or economic class within a nation, plus ecology, human suffering, etc. A stark example is the effects of sanctions imposed on Iraq – sanctions which require the State as Person metaphor to make sense of them as “moral discipline” or “punishment”. This metaphorical frame hid the reality of the catastrophic effects of sanctions on countless human beings.

iraqi-most-wantedThe State as Person metaphor is also used to justify war in terms of a hero battling a villain for a good cause. Here, the metaphorical narrative takes the form of “self-defense” or “rescue” in what Lakoff calls the “Fairy tale of the Just War” (more on this below). The absurdity of applying a predicate such as “villainous” or “threatening” to the Iraqi people doesn’t register in a debate premised on the Saddam-nation metaphor.

Textual analysis of media coverage of the Iraq war showed the terms “Saddam” and “Saddam Hussein” occurring more frequently than “Iraq”, “Iraqi people”, etc. See, for example, Semantic framing in the build-up to the Iraq War, Harmon & Muenchen, 2009).

“Rational Actor” model

Colin Powell (then Joint Chiefs head) started the hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (on the first Gulf War) by giving congress-members a tutorial on the Rational Actor model and the ideas of Carl von Clausewitz. This provided the framework in which most of the discussion took place.

In the hearings, the Rational Actor model, with its cost benefit analysis, took center stage. The possible ”losses” could only be American ”assets”: money, American casualties, equipment. Iraqi civilian lives came into the discussion only because there might be a publicity loss.
(Metaphorical Thought in Foreign Policy, George Lakoff, 1999)

Iraq-cost-benefitThe “Rational Actor” model, in economics, holds that it’s irrational to act against your self-interest. In the State as Person metaphor, the nation-self pursues its “self”-interest (ie “national interest”), maximising its assets/gains and minimising costs/losses. When this frame is applied to war, vital moral and social issues, impacting millions of people, may get excluded or reduced to cost-benefit calculations and game theory (eg as taught in courses on International Relations).

Since Iraqi civilians were not “our” assets, they couldn’t be counted as “losses”. The only way for the slaughter of Iraqi people to be regarded as a “cost” in this frame would be as bad PR, since public relations is regarded as a political and military asset. The tendency to think in this way (ie this metaphorical system dominant) would result from – among other things – being taught/trained about international politics in terms of Clausewitz’s ideas:

Clausewitz was a Prussian general whose views on war became dominant in American foreign policy circles during the Vietnam War […] Clausewitz is most commonly presented as seeing war in terms of political cost-benefit analysis: Each nation-state has political objectives, and war may best serve those objectives. The political “gains” are to be weighed against acceptable “costs.”
(Metaphor and War, George Lakoff, 1991)

Incidentally, Colin Powell was against the first Gulf War, evaluating the gains as not worth the costs – ie not profitable in quantifiable terms of “national interest”. Rationality is profit maximization in this metaphorical system.

Faux Darwinism

In Metaphorical Thought in Foreign Policy, Lakoff points out that so-called “realism” in international politics is saturated with faux-Darwinist metaphors – evolution seen as the survival of the strongest, rather than as, say, a broad matter of adaptation to ecological niches (which is not necessarily about “strength” or killing).

This frame of the competition of strength in a dangerous world combines with the above “Rational Actor” metaphor. So, not only is it “rational” to compete ruthlessly in one’s national-self-interest, it’s also natural survival instinct. An entailment of both metaphors is that “might is right” – strength (including military strength) is seen as a primary moral good. (See my article, Essentials of Framing, on how this fits into the conservative “Strict Father” perspective on morality).

Rational Actor and faux-Darwinism combine in the metaphor of Competition as Predation, which takes the form of commonplace expressions such as “it’s a dog-eat-dog world”, “it’s a jungle out there”, “you’ll be eaten alive”, etc. Thus, Kenneth Waltz, one of the most influential scholars in the field of international relations, writes (with apparently little awareness of the metaphorical nature of the claim) that:

“[States] are unitary actors who, at a minimum, seek their own preservation and, at maximum, drive for universal domination.” (Kenneth Waltz, Theory of International Politics, 1979)
.

The Fairy Tale of the Just War

newsweek2_12As mentioned above, the “Fairy Tale” is used to justify war to the public. In this frame, there’s a villain and a hero – the villain is evil, and the hero is “left with no choice” but to engage the villain in battle, and thus restore the “moral balance”. The “moral balance” in this scenario is that the heroic, rational “democratic” nations remain militarily powerful, etc, while the villains are “disarmed”. Order and harmony are thereby restored.

The villains must be disarmed, as otherwise they could victimise the hero (self-defense scenario) or the people the hero is defending (rescue scenario). The hero makes sacrifices, undergoes difficulties, has “tough decisions”, etc. And, of course, the hero acts honourably by going out of his way to avoid harming innocent bystanders, whereas the treacherous, immoral villain doesn’t care who gets hurt. (It’s not difficult to figure out what bloody realities this framing excludes).

A study by Luther and Miller, Framing of the 2003 U.S.-Iraq War Demonstrations, found that the frames used by pro-war groups were: “Threat from WMD” and “Fighting for Freedom and Democracy”. These correspond, respectively, to the “self-defense” and “rescue” versions of the Fairy Tale frame. A similar mixture of self-defense and rescue frames were used to justify the first Gulf War. President Bush (senior) first used the self-defense narrative (Saddam had “a stranglehold on our oil pipeline”), but a national poll, in October 1990, indicated that Americans would support a war framed as a “rescue”. The next day, the Bush administration dropped the “self-defense” PR, and adopted the “Rape of Kuwait” metaphor – the US, as hero, would rescue the innocent victim, Kuwait.

As these examples show, the Fairy Tale of the Just War (especially self-defense) doesn’t necessarily conflict with the War as Business frame. Both use the State as Person metaphor. The “logical” implications of the two frames are different, however. For example, the Fairy Tale has the following metaphorical entailments: 1) heroes don’t negotiate with evil villains – they defeat them; 2) The real victims are those victimised by the villain, not by the hero; 3) There’s a clearly defined “ending” when the villain has been defeated (eg symbolised by the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue). And so on.

Strategic goals / “Humanitarian mission” / “War on Terror”

newsweek2_08A war on Iraq was advocated as early as 1997 by members of the Project for the New American Century (including Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz), who later shaped the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration. The neoconservative plan was to make economic and strategic gains in the Middle East, including control of oil reserves, establishing military bases and “opening up” markets for US corporations. War was the means. Justification for war, following 9/11, was provided by the metaphorical “war on terror”.

“You can’t distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam.”
George W. Bush, 26/9/02

“The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror.”George W. Bush, 1/5/03

The “war on terror” narrative included both versions of the Fairy Tale of the Just War. America and its allies were supposedly “threatened” by WMD and “terror” (self-defense) – and a “humanitarian intervention” was needed to “spread democracy” and “liberate” Iraq from evil tyranny (rescue). Frank Luntz, the rightwing language guru, had recommended that the Iraq War be referred to as the main front in the “war on terror”, and Fox News repeatedly used “war on terror” as a headline when showing scenes from Iraq.

Antiwar frames

A position against war may be based on the likely “costs” exceeding the “gains”, as in the Rational Actor model (and this may include “costs” not usually considered under “national interest”, eg wider ecological costs, social and psychological costs, etc). As Lakoff points out, the cost-benefit calculation of “national interest” is a zero-sum system: “costs” to “them” count as “gains” for “us”: “Dead human beings went on the profit side of our ledger”. But outside of the national-interest frame, a calculation of “costs” can work differently.

More often, opposition to war is based on a moral position which excludes political and economic dimensions (particularly cost-benefit metaphors). War as Crime is a moral metaphor that is often used when a war is started by an official enemy (as in the above example, “Rape of Kuwait”). In the case of Iraq in 2003, opponents of the invasion pointed out that it was illegal under international law (hardcore advocates of the war argued otherwise). Human Rights is another approach, with its own complex metaphorical framing.

Although we can’t help using metaphors and frames to think about issues as complex as “international relations”, we can distinguish what is metaphorical from what is not. Death, dismemberment, pain and starvation are not metaphorical. In war, those who suffer these realities usually have no say in the cost-benefit calculations which decide their fate.

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March 12, 2013 at 9:19 am

Frank Luntz reframes Occupy

Frank Luntz reframes OccupyDec 5, 2011Frank Luntz is the US rightwing’s language guru. He publishes message-framing manuals for conservatives. (BBC’s Newsnight uses him as a pollster, but that’s another story). It was Luntz who, during the US health care debate, advised using terms such as “government-run” instead of “public option” – his focus groups had responded less favourably to the terms that (falsely) implied government funding.

A recent news report claims that Luntz has been advising Republicans on how to talk about the Occupy movement:

“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist … “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
(Yahoo! News 1/12/11)

The report lists Luntz’s 10 tips. These include telling the Occupy movement “I get it”, and avoiding the words “sacrifice” and “compromise”. But the ones which caught my attention were:-

  • ‘Don’t say “capitalism” … I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either “economic freedom” or “free market”.’
  • ‘Don’t say that the government “taxes the rich”. Instead, tell them that the government “takes from the rich”.’
  • ‘Don’t say “government spending”. Call it “waste”.’
  • ‘Always blame Washington. Tell them, “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington”.

You won’t be surprised to hear that little of this is new. It’s a series of frames (about government and markets) which together form what George Lakoff calls the Economic Liberty Myth. It’s already established in people’s minds from years of repetition via mass media, promoted by “market” thinktanks, city pundits, etc. In a nutshell, it’s about “freedom” – particularly “freedom of competition”, which supposedly leads to optimum “efficiency”, “opportunity”, etc. The “market” is cast as the freedom-loving hero, with the government as villain. (I go into more detail here, under the subheading “The Market Discipline frame”).

Occupy gives it a new twist

It’s the new developments that Frank Luntz is so afraid of. Namely:

  • The focus on financial sector bailouts.
  • The focus on the “99% vs 1%”; the immoral division of wealth.

The problem for Luntz is that even by “conventional” (ie sympathetic to “market”/city, private-wealth) standards of media coverage, the rightwing Economic Liberty Myth looks simply false in the context of the financial collapse/bailouts. (Why? Again, I provide a more detailed explanation of the framing issues here).

That’s why Luntz is saying: “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington”. And it’s why “market” lobby groups in the UK (such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance) are going to great lengths to frame the financial collapse in terms of government failures – as well as simply shifting the focus (and public anger) back to “government waste” (including the usual tabloid favourites – “benefit cheats“, etc).

The Economic Liberty Myth won’t be able to withstand a sustained, widespread popular focus on the financial collapse/bailouts and the immoral division of wealth – Luntz is right to be frightened.

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December 5, 2011 at 1:41 pm