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When Framing Works

"A genuine debate about Social Security is almost impossible to have given the systematically misleading way economists and journalists insist on using language," sounds like a typical liberal's complaint about the sad state of things. In fact, it's frustrated privatization advocate Will Wilkinson. Liberals have taken up the notion that "framing" is important over the past couple of years in a manner that suggests our side discovered it for the first time in 2003. But as I coincidentally happened to be discussing with a friend last night, many of liberalism's most successful framing initiatives are so successful that liberals hardly even notice that they exist. This is, needless to say, exactly how good frames work.

Kevin Drum did a good post on a related theme using as his example the success of the "civil rights" frame. It's worth noting that this frame encompasses not merely the idea that the government shouldn't discriminate against people on the basis of race, which is a very clear and intuitive consequence of widely shared values, but also the idea that the government should prohibit private companies from doing so, which isn't nearly so clear. But Will was talking about what is, perhaps, the greatest framing success of them all -- over the meaning of the term "cut." The word, as applied to a government program over a period of years, is ambiguous between a variety of possible meanings. Some viable contenders include:

  • Fewer nominal dollars are spent in Year X than were spent in Year X-n.
  • Fewer real dollars are spent in Year X than were spent in Year X-n.
  • Fewer real dollars are spent per capita in Year X than were spent in Year X-n.
  • A smaller proportion of GDP is spent in Year X than was spent in Year X-n.
  • Spending in Year X is lower than spending in Year X would be if current law as of Year X-n were extended until Year X.
Unlike Brooke I'm not going to pretend to believe that using language in a manner that uniquely comports with my political preference happens to be the only way to make language "comport with reality." One could offer a long Quinean or even Rortian story about this. Or not. I prefer not.

The upshot, however, is that there are real consequences to which uses of language -- which is to say, which frames -- prevail. The fact that liberals have established the principle that a change in law that would make Social Security benefits in Year X lower than what the existing law says Social Security benefits in Year X will be constitues a "cut in Social Security benefits" is an important success. If conservatives managed to entrench the principle that a program has not been "cut" unless nominal expenditures are cut, then it would become much easier to shrink the size of government. This rightwing-friendly framing of cuts is by no means wholly at odds with other uses of the word cut. My salary doesn't come with an automatic COLA adjustment. But if my nominal salary stays constant over a twelve month period we don't say I "got a pay cut." If I get a raise tomorrow that's actually so small as to be inadequate to offset the rise in the CPI (or perhaps more to the point, inadequate to offset the recent price increase at the coffee shop downstaird from our office) I'll still call it a "raise."

We don't normally talk about federal programs this way. And good for us -- I'm not complaining! But it serves liberals well to remember that the frame game is one that we do, in fact, know how to play.

March 3, 2005 | Permalink


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» Framing the Issue from CommonSenseDesk
Matt Yglesias raises the issue of the importance of framing an issue in a way that use language to win the debate.The upshot, however, is that there are real consequences to which uses of language -- which is to say, [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 3, 2005 9:02:54 PM

» Framing from aWpTiMuS.com
Matthew Yglesias, talking about Social Security, says: many of liberalism's most successful framing initiatives are so successful that liberals hardly even notice that they exist. This is, needless to say, exactly how good frames work.What he doesn't... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 5, 2005 3:44:24 PM


yeah, but you would call it a shitty raise and be pretty pissed off about it -- and as you get older, I think you will come to think of a "raise" that leaves you with less buying power not really a raise. Agreeing with you, this goes to show the sad, sad state of labor's ability to frame issues.
I would be interested to check in on you in 2042 and see what you thought of your salary if it was the same nominally.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 3, 2005 4:02:12 PM

An additional and important way to talk about cuts is from the view of the beneficiaries.
If you allocate say 1 million dollars to veterans death benefits, and one year you have 2 deaths and another you have 1500, it would sure seem like a cut to the beneficiaries.
I think the current frame is the correct one - we are after all individuals, not just a single borg-like commune as Will Wilkinson would have it.

Posted by: theCoach | Mar 3, 2005 4:07:00 PM

Reasonably OT, but Harry Reid just said in an interview on CNN:

"Alan Greenspan is one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington."


Posted by: Petey | Mar 3, 2005 4:11:18 PM

If conservatives managed to entrench the principle that a program has not been "cut" unless nominal expenditures are cut, then it would become much easier to shrink the size of government.

I would point out that thinking of cuts in transfer programs as "shrinking the size of government" is a pretty weird way of framing the issue. If we cut Social Security benefits and taxes by 50% today, tomorrow you would still need the same SSA office block in D.C. and the same SSA employees would have to show up at their desks.

A lot of what the federal government does is redistribution: accordingly, when the conservatives say "shrinking the size of government" people like to think "fewer nosy bureaucrats" but the real upshot is the same number of bureaucrats but less redistribution.

(IIRC, David Stockman's The Triumph Of Politics, which everyone who reads this blog should read, noted that Reagan was of the view when he first came to Washington that you could really cut a lot out of the federal budget just by slashing the payroll. That was true for Reagan in Sacramento; it's not true about Washington then or now, because federal spending is so much less about payroll and so much more about transfer payments.)

Posted by: alkali | Mar 3, 2005 4:24:28 PM

SS sends out to millions of people letters that estimate what monthly benefits will be when they retire. Many people look over these figures.

When they look at that monthly figure and think to themselves "republicans want to reduce that to somewhere below the poverty level," it doesn't matter whether it's called a cut or a unicorn. "Poverty" is the really powerful idea in that scenario.

And to be clear, the frame for individuals is not about overall government expenditures or this or that percent return on investment. It's about the money that will go into each individual's personal private pocket each month when they retire. And people seem to feel that, for some reason, the governments Social Security obligations to them personally are more of a promise than they are a proposal that is in ongoing negotiation.

Likely penury concentrates the mind.


Posted by: rifffle | Mar 3, 2005 4:31:56 PM

In addition to Harry Reid's brilliant comment in his interview today with Judy Woodruff about Greenspan, Reid also said about George Bush and the Social Security non-crisis that Bush has "never seen a crisis he hasn't created."

A second Hallelujah to that!

Posted by: Deborah White | Mar 3, 2005 4:41:21 PM

Framing is important, but I think what is lowering public support for SS privitization is Bush himself.

I think most people, whether they voted for Bush or not, consider him a liar. Every time he opens his mouth, support for gutting SS drops.

Credibility > Framing

Posted by: monkyboy | Mar 3, 2005 4:42:13 PM

As a framing device, though, it's worth pointing out that those SS letters were devised by the Clinton Administration, to give future recipients an idea of what they would be receiving. Fits very nicely with calling something a "cut" after all...

Posted by: weboy | Mar 3, 2005 4:44:00 PM

Framing. Hmmm... Ok. The traditional Democratic way of framing has always been to claim that if the planned real increase in a government program is X%, and the real increase is cut to Y

I always thought, though, that if a Grand high Exalted Journalist, or maybe a Philosopher, as opposed to a lowly hack, called this a cut, he would be lying. Gotta remember - it's not lying, its "framing." Framing, not lying.

Why, dear, I wasn't lying about where I was last night, I was framing.

That wasn't perjury, your honor, it was framing.

I cannot tell a lie. I can frame, however!

Ebbers ought to try this -- it wasn't misleading accounting, we were framing!

Posted by: ostap | Mar 3, 2005 5:09:41 PM

Another key point about framing is that the spokesperson matters; Dems have credibility on SS and the GOP largely does not. Likewise, Nancy Pelosi can give the world's toughest speech on national security and it won't matter.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 3, 2005 5:14:22 PM

Thanks, Matt, for acknowledging that liberal success on this issue has to do with a successful reframing, and not a with a rationally persuasive argument employing the ordinary meaning of the reframed terms.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Mar 3, 2005 5:20:03 PM

With all due respect - what a stupid post. This is not rocket science; I don't see any framing here at all.

If you were promised $X and then it's changed to $Y where YX, that's a cut, simple as that.

And this goes for your salary, for Medicare, for Social Security, for anything. No framing necessary, just the simple fact, simple truth.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 3, 2005 5:43:12 PM

Will Wilkinson,
How dare you not support the troops?!?


Posted by: Cranky Observer | Mar 3, 2005 5:45:48 PM

Newt Gingrich spent a lot of political capital fighting this very frame. And not entirely successfully - but at least SOMEWHAT successfully.

Re Harry Reid: "Alan Greenspan is one of the biggest political hacks we have in Washington." More proof that Reid is actually an extremist left-winger, and not the moderate that the media and the Democrats are attempting to portray him as.

Posted by: Al | Mar 3, 2005 6:07:02 PM

The crucial problem is that all of the above applies to tax cuts, spending increases, and tax increases. And thus, it's a wash, practically by definition.

Posted by: theogon | Mar 3, 2005 6:29:22 PM

"More proof that Reid is actually an extremist left-winger..."

Are you capable of distinguishing "partisan Democrat" from "extremist left-winger"? You'd have to be as loony as Will Wilkinson to think Reid is a left-winger.

And his Greenspan comment is, of course, quite correct. Greenspan has done a fair to good job in his narrow responsibilities of setting fed funds rates. His public comments over the decades, on the other hand, have consistently been those of a Republican political hack, displaying a desire for partisan advantage over any kind of intellectual honesty.

No wonder Ayn Rand used to mock him.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 3, 2005 6:37:24 PM

I play Will's game just for laughs. The Bush plan is to go to price indexation would leave constant over time the real value of SS benefits but that means the young 'uns pay more in payroll taxes for no more in benefits. OK, Will - by your use of language, Bush is proposing a TAX INCREASE on the young 'uns.

Posted by: pgl | Mar 3, 2005 6:49:53 PM

"No wonder Ayn Rand used to mock him."

She did? I thought they were lovers?

Posted by: praktike | Mar 3, 2005 6:50:54 PM

"She did? I thought they were lovers?"

Are you joking?

Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle, tolerated for his intellectual facility, but mocked for his obsequiousness and lack of wit.

Rand's nickname for him was "The Undertaker".

Posted by: Petey | Mar 3, 2005 6:57:20 PM

The Bush administration has a corrupt fiscal policy. Its goal is to loot the Treasury and the SS Trust fund and abuse the US Treasury as one giant slush fund for Bush campaign contributors. Tax cuts for the wealthy, Ag subsidies for red state corporate farms, Medicare handouts to the Drug companies, huge increases in DOD spending and money to contractors. The degree of corruption and looting of the US Treasury is breathtaking. It is Enron legal but every bit as corrupt. No one is willing to say that this administration has the most corrupt fiscal policy since Teapot Dome.

It is impossible to discuss SS until we deal with the corruption of the Bush administration. Bush is sacrificing the long term fiscal position of the US to Treasury looting and corporate welfare to his supporters for short term partisan gain. We should stop talking about Social Security and start discussing the depth of corruption and fiscal mismanagement it takes to create $600 Billion deficits.

Posted by: bakho | Mar 3, 2005 7:47:41 PM

If we stop the corruption, Social Security will take care of itself.

Posted by: bakho | Mar 3, 2005 7:48:16 PM

"Are you joking?"


Posted by: praktike | Mar 3, 2005 8:29:11 PM

I'm not sure if this sort of word choice really constitutes 'framing' as opposed to good, old fashioned statistical manipulation. Shouldn't a frame be more than just a single word-choice, rather a comprehensive, morally-resonant change of outlook on an issue? Or perhaps that is the type of frame that democrats still need to create, something that is only possible once we establish command and recognized authority over more technical aspects of political language.

Posted by: Jake Haisley | Mar 3, 2005 9:08:04 PM

I would say the Republicans framing of the Iraq war is the best example, Jake.

First we were going in to get the WMD. None there!

Next we were going in because of Saddam's ties to terrorists. Oops...he hated 'em.

Noooo...the war was really about bringing democracy to the Iraqis. Bingo!

That's how you do it. Frame whatever you can salvage as your true goal all along. You even see now the more lumpen neocons crowing that they were right and the liberals were wrong...even though it was the liberals who had to drag them into having an election in the first place.

Posted by: monkyboy | Mar 3, 2005 9:38:52 PM

Seems to me that "ownership society", which you use fairly non-critically below, is a perfect example of framing. To me, the R's vision of "ownership society" sounds like a "survival of the fittest (and to the wolves with the rest)" society. Or perhaps a "zero tolerance for bad luck" society. In any event it's a society with increased personal risk. Sounds a lot less exciting _that_ way.

Posted by: Dave | Mar 3, 2005 9:49:44 PM

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