Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Posts Tagged ‘framing

This One Chart Shows Everything That’s Wrong With Liberal Politics

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All right, not just a chart, but the chart and accompanying post. And not everything, but something important.

The other Jonathan Cohn had a post from shortly before the election at the New Republic that highlights a chart from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute regarding the state’s decision not to expand Medicaid as part of the ACA.

It’s easy to recognize the human toll of refusing to expand Medicaid. It’s not so easy to recognize the economic toll. Maybe this chart will help:



But the state officials who have blocked expansion aren’t simply depriving some people of health insurance. They are depriving the entire state of federal funds. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government picks up 100 percent of the expansion cost for the first three years, then scales back its support to 90 percent. At that point, states will have to find the money to cover that remaining 10 percent. It’s real money. But it’s tiny compared to what they get in return. The federal money is a huge influx of cash, which goes first to providers and suppliers of health care. That money, in turn, generates additional economic activity.

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Written by David Kaib

November 10, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Americans Remain Divided on Completely Meaningless Question

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A recent Gallup poll (h/t Jonathan Cohn) provides another illustration of a point I’ve made before–view of Americans as presented in the media are a product of the weird sorts of questions asked by pollsters. gov activity poll Now, what on earth is this asking? Do people really have opinions on “how active” government should be, unmoored from the specific things government does? We know that many people would like government to address a range of problems – like poverty and lack of health care and improving public education. But “every area it can”? Why should anyone have an opinion about that?

The reason this makes sense to Gallup and their audience is because many things government does are naturalized. meaning it’s not seen as a choice. Property protection, contract enforcement, the military, prisons and policing–these things are likely covered under most people’s understandings of “basic functions.” But of course, government could be sprawling and expensive while only doing these things (especially the last two). Political scientists have been pleading for over a generation with people not to ask only about “government” in general but to pair that with more specific questions. I’d go further and say asking about “government” when we know full well it means different things to different people makes no sense unless you are trying to mislead. That’s not to say that’s what’s happening here. It’s exceedingly common to see people act like talk about “government” is not inherently contestable and ambiguous. Those who want government to act to serve the interests of those at the bottom often use this language. But it doesn’t make it useful for understanding people’s positions on what government should be doing (let alone for enlisting support for specific policies).

For what it’s worth, this is why ‘big government’ is a concept that causes such confusion. As near as I can tell, ‘big government’ means actions that punish the powerful or help out the disadvantaged, while not big government are actions that punish the disadvantaged or serve the interests of the powerful. So ‘anti-government’ conservatives railing against ‘big government’ can expand the carceral state, the national security state, the bloated military. And that’s why people can say ‘keep the government out of my Medicare’. It looks foolish because we don’t mean the same thing by these terms as those we criticize. It would make both polling and politics easier if we all meant the same thing by terms.

But sadly, that’s not how things work.

Written by David Kaib

October 2, 2014 at 9:40 pm

I am outraged at David Brooks’ continuing execution of the War on Drugs

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[Updated below]

[If you read my piece entitled I’m so outraged at Kim Kardashian for maintaining the 5th Fleet in a human rights violating autocracy, some of this may be familiar.]

Someone who doesn't have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

Someone who doesn’t have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

One of the strange things about our politics is the disconnect between what sorts of things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice.  I’m thinking specifically of how a statement can set off outrage while the background behaviors, activities or policies that the statement expresses or seeks to justify do not.  So Mitt Romney can, as the nominee of the Republican Party, run an entire campaign on policies that are designed to better distribute wealth to the wealthy while ignoring the concerns of large blocs of voters, but it takes him saying that he only cares about half of the voters to really get people outraged.

I think this dynamic is a product of two things.  First, a great deal of our politics concerns people’s motives and character, which are largely unknowable, as opposed to assessing their actions on their own terms.  So when someone says something, potentially revealing their intentions, it seems powerful.  Second, and I suspect more importantly, it’s hard to get upset about long-standing, entrenched conditions.  We do better trying to oppose some deviation from the norm, or at least, things that are understood that way.  Thus we see a great deal of arguments over precedents outside the courtroom, where they may well seem misplaced. Similarly, the nonstop efforts to paint people and positions are “extreme” without attending to the merits of the position. Politics is in many ways largely an effort to decide whose positions are considered speakable and whose are not, which is fairly antithetical to both the idea of progress and the ideal of democracy.

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Written by David Kaib

January 4, 2014 at 3:29 pm

Top Posts for 2013

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Here they are–the top posts, based on views, for 2013.

1. Blaming Consumers is a Cop Out

This is the no contest the most read piece this year, also the most comments for a post.  It included a shout out to John Kenneth Galbraith, and a link to Albert Hirschman. (Mental note, talk about more good economists.)

“our willingness” to buy products produced under these conditions is an odd way to talk about it. Businesses spend a lot of energy obscuring these working conditions, to tell those who are concerned about it that they have improved them, will work to improve them, or that they aren’t that bad or that they are inevitable.  Beyond that, it’s not clear what consumers are supposed to do. If all products were clearly labeled to give us a full sense of the conditions in which they were made, it’s not as if it would be possible to simply avoid such products. Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to do this knows while you can occasionally find something made in fair conditions, it’s next to impossible to do it consistently.  Despite the myth that markets always provide broad choice, this is simply not the case.

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Written by David Kaib

December 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Against “The War Against X”

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I’ve been complaining about the framing of the various “War(s) Against X.” So I thought it worth talking a bit about why.

Listening to political discussions, there seem to be wars everywhere. There’s a war on women, a war on voting, a war on the poor. (The right has their wars too, like the war on Christmas, but I assume ones actually related to policy are meant to be taken more seriously.)

To begin with “War on X” rhetoric seems purely defensive.  That is, it is only useful for critiquing Republicans, not for advancing any sort of positive agenda.  In addition, it implies status quo was acceptable .  It suggests the goal is, for example, to stop SNAP cuts, not to ensure food security, or stop new abortion restrictions, not ensure access.  The War Against Voting is about new voting restrictions, but does that mean that only old voting restrictions are acceptable? There’s some implication, maybe, that we are for autonomy, or freedom and equality, or democracy. Implication enough for those who want to find it to hear it, not enough for anyone else to. In reality, I saw innumerable commercials for Terry McAuliffe, and the only thing conveyed was that Ken Cuccinelli was extreme and McAuliffe was in favor of abortion rights in cases of rape and incest.

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Written by David Kaib

November 7, 2013 at 9:50 pm

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Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful than Individualism

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I recently argued against a common framing when it comes to fending off attacks on Social Security and Medicare, which come in the form of referring to these programs as “entitlements” which must be “reformed.” The standard response, as I said then, is  ”Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement.  It’s an earned benefit.” I argued that this is troubling because it is weak to simply deny the claim and that it is factually wrong, because these programs are entitlements (i.e. rights).  By making the rights frame explicit, we can put opponents on the defensive by using their own term against them and better mobilize our side. That’s how you build power.

I didn’t point out, but I should have, that this phrasing also suffers from the “Don’t Think of an Elephant” problem. As George Lakoff has says, when someone tells you not to think of an elephant, you will in fact think of an elephant. Using the word evokes the image, even if you do so as a denial. That’s just how our brains work.

But I also said that  ‘earned benefit’ is just a weak term.  It’s that claim I want to defend here.

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Written by David Kaib

October 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Entitlement Means Right

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By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Democrats* have gotten at least part of the message–language matters. They know the GOP has long been using language to advance their agenda, and they know they want to as well.  Unfortunately, often this means simply denying Republicans’ framing and offering bloodless alternatives.

A good example involves talk about Social Security and Medicare, lumped together under the term ‘entitlements.’ Political elites (not, it should be noted, limited to Republicans) talk incessantly about the need to ‘reform entitlements’ because, they say, entitlement spending is out of control. To listen to this talk, our greatest threat as a nation is ballooning entitlement spending (not climate change, or inequality, or mass unemployment, or mass incarceration or anything the rest of us actually care about).

Now, this is utter nonsense. I’ve written about this before.  But for now I want to talk about the politics, not the substance.

The standard liberal rhetorical move when faced with this is denial.  Even more than the facts, the typical response denies the label.  “Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement”, they insist.  “It’s an earned benefit.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

October 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Patriot Act, ‘support’ for public policies and the construction of democratic control

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Not long ago, I argued that how poll questions are often framed, and more important, how they are interpreted in the media, worked to reinforce the status quo, specifically on the issue of mass surveillance.

I’ve since ran across an article (h/t Chris Bowers) that addresses this issue and sheds some important light on my point: Samuel J. Best and Monika L. McDermott, Measuring Opinions vs. Non-Opinions – The Case of the USA Patriot Act (pdf). They investigate whether pollsters are manufacturing opinions on subjects where they don’t exist, in response to the pressure to add public opinion to political debates. In essence, they argue that respondents do not know what the Patriot Act (a complex piece of legislation) does, but use clues from the wording of questions to make up for that ignorance.  So what appears to be actual opinions about the law (which for the record, shows very different levels of support depending on the question wording) is simply an artifact.

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Written by David Kaib

July 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm

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