Politics and Social Justice Archive

What the Pundits Missed

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

The usual pundits, for all their verbiage, have missed a lot, especially since they have nobody from the cognitive and brain sciences discussing election. Here’s part of what’s been missing from the discussion.

First, conservatives have an extensive, but not obvious communications system, with many think tanks, framing experts, training institutes, a system of spokespeople linked by talking points, and bookers booking their people not just on radio and TV, but in lots of civic venues. This system is active not only in elections, but 24/7/365. Democrats have no comparable system.

Second, demographers report that the big swing in this election was among “independents.” What are called “independents” are actually bi-conceptuals — people who have both conservative and progressive conceptual systems in their brains, each inhibiting the other and usually applying to different issues. When such voters hear messages from one side but not the other, that side’s moral system becomes active and is made stronger. That happened all over the country in this election.

Third, voters vote on the basis of their morality and their sense of self, which is a reflection of their moral values. In this election, conservatives reached the bi-conceptuals over the past year and a half preaching their morality (e.g. freedom — government takeover; life — death panels). The Obama administration only countered with policy, which goes in one ear and out the other. No moral leadership via messaging.

What is being missed is the enormous effect of this massive communications failure by the Democrats.

Read the original post on The Huffington Post.

George Lakoff is author of Don’t Think Of An Elephant, available now.

On Environmental Communication

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Today, September 28, 2010, EcoAmerica is hosting an important environmental conference, America The Best, in Washington, DC, for a small group of specialists in environmental communication to see what ideas emerge. Because of the number of distinguished participants, I compressed my ideas to just a few pages. I have written about these issues at length in the journal Environmental Communication, No. 1, 2010, but since a condensed version has a chance of actually being read, I thought I would send it out beyond the conference participants to see if it can get some discussion started on a national level.

An understanding of communication is necessary, as the communication failures of the Obama administration have made clear. The environmental movement as a whole shares such failures, which is why the conference is being held. The importance of communication in politics has not been recognized sufficiently by environmentalists, and by progressives in general.

When a huge number of Americans hear mainly from anti-environmental conservatives all day every day, they put pressure on their representatives in Congress. That affects voting on legislation. It is getting late to act on global warming. If the Republicans take over Congress it may be too late. The fate of the planet hangs in the balance. Here are a few pages to begin a conversation that should be engaged immediately.

These notes are about ideas that have to change in the wider public and how to change them. They are not about short-term slogans.

Notes on Environmental Communication

Some Brain Basics
We think with our brains. We think using conceptual systems that are physical. They use brain circuitry, structured to characterize frames and metaphors. All language is made meaningful by activating these frame-circuits.

Activation of a frame-circuit makes its synapses stronger. Just listening to or using language that activates a frame-circuit strengthens that frame-circuit.

Negating a frame activates that frame. Using conservative language to argue against conservatives just reinforces conservative framings. Environmental language must avoid activating anti-environmental frames and anti-environmental language.

For example, defending science activates the idea the science needs defending and so is questionable. Go on offense, not on defense.

All Politics is Moral: The system of concepts used in political discourse is grounded in conceptions of what is moral. Every political leader claims he or she is doing what is right, not what is wrong. But Conservative and Progressive moral systems differ profoundly (see The Political Mind and Moral Politics). Parts of the conservative moral system contradict environmental values — Man over Nature, Laissez-faire markets, personal not social responsibility, etc. Environmental values derive from a moral system centered on empathy and social responsibility.

Biconceptualism: Many, if not most, people have two contradictory moral systems, applied to different issues. They may be progressive on some issues, conservative on others. The brain makes this possible via mutual inhibition — activating a moral system strengthens it and inhibits, and hence weakens, the other.

This means that one should talk using the positive language of an environmental (and hence progressive) moral system, and avoid the language of the anti-environmental (radically conservative) moral system.

Political bi-conceptuals include something like 15 to 20 percent of the voting population. It is crucial to think of them all the time.

Moral Versus Merely Factual Arguments: Facts matter. But for their importance to be communicated at all, they must be framed in moral terms. Facts by themselves are not meaningful to most people. Just arguing the science of global warming is not effective. If done defensively, it can be self-defeating.

The Conservative Communication System: Over the past 40 years, conservatives have built an effective communications system better than anything progressives have. It consists of a prior understanding of the conservative moral system, dozens of think tanks working from that system, talented framing professionals, training institutes that train tens of thousands of conservatives a year to think and talk from a radical conservative perspective, a system of trained spokespeople, and booking agencies to book their spokespeople on radio, TV, and in venues like civic groups, colleges, corporations, etc., and more recently, a blogging community. The result is that, throughout the country, millions of people hear consistent messages day after day. The environmental community has not built such an effective system, and does not have the long-term framing needed to go with it. Just running ads doesn’t compete with an effective communication system!

Language Changes Brains
Language is crucial, because language activates frame-circuits and hence can change brains. Most brain change is slow, long-term, and requires constant repetition. Some brain change is fast — mostly in the case of trauma. The recent environmental disasters have been opportunities for fast brain change. The environmental community was not able to take advantage of those opportunities.

Long-term versus Short-term Messaging: The conservative message system has been activating the conservative moral system in the brains of listeners for over 30 years. Their anti-environmental messages have been affecting brains for a very long time, and in recent years their messaging has been very effective.

Such long-term, morally-based, anti-environmental messaging cannot be countered effectively by short-term messages and mere ads.

Disaster Messaging: When environmental messaging has failed and faces a communication disaster like the present one, the response has been “disaster messaging” — an ad campaign to “get the facts out there” and be bipartisan. This fails because (1) without the moral language and ideas behind them, the facts by themselves don’t register, and (2) attempts to be bipartisan do not activate the environmental moral system in bi-conceptual brains, and may even hurt if the messages use conservative language.

Why Conservatives Message Better: In business school, they studied marketing, and marketing professors study cognitive science to learn how the mind really works. Progressives tend to study political science, law, economics, and public policy, which assume Enlightenment Reason, which is not how the brain really works. Those fields get reason wrong and thus give conservatives a big advantage.

Needed Long-term Messages: In order to decide on short-term messaging, one has to have a very good idea of the long-term ideas that are necessary to make sense of and to integrate short-term messages. The long term-ideas that have to be understood and accepted by the broad public are mostly are moral in character. Here are some of those ideas.

We Are Part of Nature: The term “environment” provides a misleading image, as if the “environment” were outside of us, around us, not inside us and part of us. The reality is that we are not separate from our environment. This is obvious from air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat — but also what we experience of nature, since experience is physical, part of our bodies and brains.

Nature Nurtures Us: We cannot exist without all that we get from nature. Human beings are who we are because of Nature as it exists. Nature nurtures and shapes us.

The Greatest Moral Issue of Our Time: Nature as we know it is being destroyed by human action. The issue of global warming is the issue of the destruction, or the saving, of Nature as we know it, at least where optimal conditions still occur such as clean air, abundant water, available food, mild climate, disaster-free life, extensive habitable regions, animals that share nature with us and that we are linked to through evolution, and our biological and ethical connections to the living world.

Children and Grandchildren: Will our children and grandchildren be able to know nature as we know it? Only if we stop global warming.

We All Own The Air: Support the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR ACT now. Every adult citizen gets a significant financial dividend as the carbon pollution is cleaned up. There are only a couple of thousand distribution points for carbon fuels in America, and they are already monitored. To sell polluting fuels, each company would have to by dumping permits for the pollution to be dumped into the air. The number of permits would be reduced each year, cleaning the air and producing a market in permits. The permit money would go, three-quarters to adult citizens equally, and one-quarter to alternative fuel development and repairing previous environmental destruction. Most people will make money, even if fuel prices go up. That money will be spent and will create jobs all over the nation. The bill is 39 pages long. Read it.

The Global Economic Crisis Is The Same As the Global Environmental Crisis.: Tom Friedman has expressed this in economic metaphors: Both of crises arose from Underestimating Risks, Privatizing Profits, and Socializing Losses. Both are consequences of human greed in a Greed-Is-Good economic system.

Systemic Causation and Risk: Every language represents direct causation in its grammar. No language in the world represents systemic causation in its grammar. Yet both the global economy and global ecology are systemic in nature, with large-scale overall causes, positive and negative feedback loops, and so on. Systemic causation must be taught; it does not arise naturally as a concept. We must learn to think in systemic terms. Systemic risk is different from local risk.

The Cost of Doing Business: Dumping pollution, blowing off mountain tops, leaving pipelines in the ocean, letting fertilizer run off — these are all “externalizations of costs;” that is, they increase profits by harming nature. Businesses should not be allowed to externalize costs. A moral business should not destroy Nature. Oil companies are in the business of destroying nature.

Cost-Benefit Analysis: The use of cost-benefit analysis is inherently anti-ecological. The mathematics works by a formula: The integral (or sum) over time of a local environmental benefit minus the corresponding local business cost, times the following factor: e to the minus discount (interest) rate times time. Since money is worth less in the future than in the present because of compound interest, any environmental benefits go down exponentially relative to business costs and soon approach zero. Since nature should continue indefinitely, while business is transitory, the mathematics itself has a hidden anti-ecological bias.

Energy Saved Is Worth Far More than Energy Used: Energy savings are multiplicative. Suppose you insulate your house. Next year you will use X barrels of of oil less to heat it. That means X barrels of oil not needed to be extracted. But each year after that, again you will not need X barrels of oil. Thus, the savings are multiplicative: you keep not needing oil year after year.

When it is claimed that business “needs” dirty energy (fossil and nuclear fuels), the possible multiplicative savings from conservation and alternative fuels — that is from not needing dirty fuels — is usually not factored in.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has observed that, via conservation alone, we could save 23 times all the energy we get yearly from coal. Even if he is only ten percent right, it would mean that coal is not needed as an energy source.

Distributed, clean, capital-lite energy is more efficient, profitable, and moral than centralized, dirty, capital-intensive energy (like coal mines and plants, oil wells and refineries, huge dams, nuclear power plants, natural gas fracking, etc.). This is crucial to developing countries as well as developed countries.

Political Action is More Important than Symbolic Action: It was nice of Jimmy Carter to put solar cells on the White House, and Michelle Obama’s White House organic garden is a fine gesture as well. But neither of those has changed much. A presidential order putting solar cells on all military and government facilities, and having all military and government agencies require fuel-efficient vehicles, would change a lot. Buying senators is more effective than buying new light bulbs. Effective communication can “buy” political leaders by changing what voters hear. Ecological moral action is fundamentally political action.

Effective communication and education constitute political action: Whatever changes brains on a massive scale in an ecological direction will result in material change.

Business is central to the effort: Business can save, and hence make, a lot money by going green and developing green technology.

Food: It is important to move from mostly oil-based food (using pesticides, fertilizers, global transportation) to sun-based food (local and organic) and from huge, centralized, unhealthy, polluting feedlots to small local operations.

Ecological development creates jobs and prosperity: People want to live, and business want to locate, in places that are ecologically attractive and responsible, and the conversion to such values means new businesses will thrive.

Ecological Education is the Most Essential Form of Education: The saving of Nature depends on It. Our economic future depends on it.

Women’s Education is one the most important ecological issues: Population control depends on it.

True Morality is Ecological Morality: The saving of Nature depends on it.

This article appeared originally on The Huffington Post.

George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think Of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame The Debate.

Why the Democrats’ Response to the Pledge Has Been Inadequate

Monday, September 27th, 2010

The Democratic response to the Republican Pledge to America has been factual about its economics. The September 26, 2010 Sunday New York Times editorial goes through the economic details, and Democrats have been citing the economic facts from the Congressional Budget Office. As Dan Pfeiffer reports on the White House blog, the Republicans are proposing:

* Tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires by borrowing $700 billion we can’t afford;
* Tax hikes for 110 million middle-class families and millions of small businesses;
* Cutting rules and oversight for special interests like big oil, big insurance, credit card and mortgage companies and Wall Street banks;
* Doing nothing to stop the outsourcing of American jobs or to end tax breaks that are given to companies that ship jobs overseas;
* All while adding trillions to our nation’s deficit.

Their plan is also notable for what it doesn’t talk about: protecting Social Security and Medicare from privatization schemes; investing in high-quality education for our nation’s children; growing key industries like clean energy and manufacturing; and rebuilding our crumbling roads, rails and runways.

This is the same agenda that caused the deepest recession since the Great Depression…

The Democrats who have checked out the facts have echoed President Obama’s judgment of the Pledge: It’s “worthless.”

I agree. And if the voting public voted on the basis of the economic details, plus the Democrats’ system of values, the Republicans wouldn’t have a chance in hell in the November elections.

But the polls show otherwise. What do we conclude? The voting public does not vote on the basis of the economic details, and the voting public does not fully accept the Democrats’ system of values as they apply in this election.

I will make a bet. When the new polls come out next week, the Democrats’ response to the Republican pledge will not have turned around the Republican lead in the polls.

In short, the Democrats’ response to the Republican Pledge may well be irrelevant. Why? And why does the President have such a hard time defending his accomplishments?

Pundits have been looking for a simple answer. But the answer is complex and depends on understanding how the minds and brains of voters work. Here are ten basic principles:
First, all politics is moral. People vote for values they identify with, for what they see as right, not wrong.

Second, the facts alone don’t set you free. Facts matter, but they must be understandable, that is, framed for normal human beings, and framed so as to be relevant to the moral views that define a voter’s identity.

Third, there are two very different moral views at play in our country’s politics. Liberal and conservative moral systems are inconsistent as they apply to most major issues. There is no neutral worldview, no worldview of the “center.”

Fourth, there are, however, a significant number of voters –as many as 15 to 20 percent — who have both worldviews, but may apply them to different issues in all sorts of ways. Some may be conservative on social issues, but liberal on economic issues, or conversely. Some may be “up in the air” — not sure about given issues. I call these “bi-conceptual” voters. These are the voters who most matter in this election, as in most others.

Five, because people think with their brains, all ideas are physical. They occur in brain circuits called “frames.” Bi-conceptual voters exist because inconsistent ideas can exist in the same brain due to what is called “mutual inhibition,” in which the activation of one frame inhibits (that is, turns off) the other. The more a conservative frame is activated, the stronger it gets and the weaker the corresponding liberal frame gets. What activates frames? Language.

Sixth, what follows from all this is that liberals should never use conservative language (e.g., “tax relief” and “entitlements”) because it activates conservative frames and weakens their own case. Liberals should not “move to the right” and adopt conservative positions since that will only make bi-conceptuals more likely to vote conservative. The reason is that conservative language and ideas just strengthen the conservative circuitry in their brains and weakens their liberal brain-circuitry.

Moreover, when you negate a frame, you strengthen it. When a liberal argues point by point against a conservative argument, he or she is repeating the conservative argument and hence strengthening its hold on the brain.

Seventh, in political discourse, numbers in themselves are meaningless. They can be made meaningful only in everyday terms and in moral terms. In themselves, numbers from the Congressional Budget Office don’t mean much to most people. The facts alone, not properly framed, won’t be convincing. This means avoiding policy-wonk talk, the kind of talk the Obama administration has been using nonstop.

Eighth, people tend to adapt their baseline expectations to what they already have. That is why the President gets little appreciation for what he has already accomplished. If he’s done it, we take it for granted. People also tend to be risk-averse. That is why conservative attacks on the president and the Democrats can be taken seriously, even if they are not based on hard economic facts. The moral: Always go on offense not defense. Liberal morality means more than just empathy for one’s countrymen. It means social and well as personal responsibility and it means excellence — doing your best as a commitment to family, community and country. And it means framing in terms of such moral views and in terms of risk aversion, not just past accomplishments.

Ninth, there is no reason without emotion. Without emotion, you don’t know what to want and what to avoid. Rationality requires the proper emotionality. Reagan knew how to connect emotionally without going into a tirade. So did Obama when he ran for President.

Tenth, repetition matters. The language that people hear most often repeated activates and strengthens the corresponding frames in their brains

Conservatives are better at marketing their ideas. They are better at framing, because they understand the primacy of morality, how their moral system works, and how to talk to bi-conceptuals. They have a much more extensive communication system, built over three decades, with think tanks, training institutes, recruited speakers, owned media, and booking agencies — in addition to ads and bloggers. Their messages are affecting the brains of voters 24/7, every day in every electoral district.

We can now see why the Democrats have been failing in their communications. Their message system is inadequate. They need to build it up significantly, starting as soon as possible. They need to find and address bi-conceptuals. They need to speak from their own moral perspective. They need to connect emotionally with voters. The need to stop trying to be bi-partisan; that just helps Republicans, who know enough not to be bipartisan in the current electoral situation. And they need to understand how language activates frames in the brain.

The Democratic strategy so far has been to see each race as separate, with no overall Democratic vision. Bill Clinton sees this as a mistake and I agree. The Republicans have presented a vision, whatever one thinks of the detailed proposals. The NY Times editorial pooh-poohs the pledge’s “breathless mimicry of the Declaration of Independence.” But that is most of what their audience will read, not the 48 pages of proposals.

In his campaign, Barack Obama articulated beautifully the Democratic moral vision of America. America is based on citizens caring about, and for, each other. The values of empathy, social as well as personal responsibility, and an ethic of excellence lead to a government of, by, and for the people, with values like freedom and fairness, and a governmental responsibility to protect and empower the people. That is a Democratic view of America. It calls on Americans to come together in difficult times, and it characterizes the party’s, as well as the President’s, moral compass.

Finally, Democrats also need to understand what framing is and isn’t. Framing is normal. You activate frames with every word you speak. Careful framing is needed to communicate effectively — to get your values across and to get the facts out to voters in language they can understand at an appropriate level and appreciate morally. Can framing be used to manipulate and deceive? Yes, by unscrupulous people. Can framing be used to express our deepest values and to tell our most important truths? Definitely! There’s no other way. If you use language, you cannot avoid framing. What matters is how you do it.

The usual pundits keep asking what’s wrong with the Democrats’ communication. As we have seen, it isn’t one simple thing. It’s complicated. But it all centers on understanding how the mind and brain really work.

Many Democrats work with a major disadvantage: They tend to have an inadequate view of human reason. Human brains work via frames, metaphors, images, emotions, stereotypes and narratives, all of which have their own “logics.” Brains work by adjustment of baseline expectations upward in response to improvements, and by risk aversion. And brains use mutual inhibition, which allows them to hold contradictory moral views at once and apply them to different cases.

Every social science program in America should include a required course on how the cognitive and brain sciences shed crucial light on political and social issues. We cannot afford another generation of social scientists who don’t understand how the brain works, and why that matters.

George Lakoff is the author of Don’t Think Of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

This article appeared originally on The Huffington Post.

Conservatism’s Death Gusher

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

This originally appeared on The Huffington Post

The issue is death — death gushing at ten thousand pounds per square inch from a mile below the sea, tens of thousands of barrels of death a day. Not just death to eleven human beings. Death to sea birds, sea turtles, dolphins, fish, oyster beds, shrimp, beaches; death to the fishing industry, tourism, jobs; and death to a way of life based on the beauty and bounty of the Gulf.

Many, perhaps a majority, of the Gulf residents affected are conservatives, strong right-wing Republicans, following extremist Governors Bobby Jindal and Haley Barbour. What those conservatives are not saying, and may be incapable of seeing, is that conservatism itself is largely responsible for what happened, and that conservatism is a continuing disaster for conservatives who live along the Gulf. Conservatism is an ideology of death.

It was conservative laissez-faire free market ideology — that maximizing profit comes first — that led to:

  • The corrupt relationship between the oil companies and the Interior Department staff that was supposedly regulating them
  • Minimizing cost by not drilling relief wells
  • The principle that oil companies could be responsible their own risk assessments on drilling
  • Maximizing profit by outsourcing risk assessment that told them what they wanted to hear: zero risk!
  • Maximizing profit by minimizing cost of materials
  • Maximizing profit by failing to pay cleanup crews and businesses for their losses
  • Focusing only on profit by failing to test the cleanup methods to be used if something went wrong
  • Minimizing cost by sacrificing the health of cleanup crews, refusing to allow them to use respirator masks to protect against toxic fumes.

It is conservative profit-above-all market fundamentalism that has led other oil companies to mount a massive PR campaign to isolate BP as an anomalous “bad actor” and to argue that offshore drilling should be continued by the self-proclaimed “good actors.” Their PR fails to mention that in Congressional hearings it came out that they all outsource risk assessment to the same company that declared that BP had “zero risk.” The PR fails to mention that they all use cost-benefit analysis to maximize profits just as BP did. Cost-benefit analysis only looks at monetary costs versus benefits, case by case, not at the risk of massive death of the kind gushing out of the Gulf at present. Death, in itself, even at that scale, is not a “cost.” Only an outflow of money is a “cost.” This is what follows from conservative laissez-faire market ideology, an ideology that continues to sanction death on a Gulf scale.

But the facts won’t make a difference to dyed-in the-wool conservatives, since the facts will be filtered through their ideological frames: when the facts don’t fit the frames, the facts will be ignored.

The conservative worldview says man has dominion over nature: nature is there for human monetary profit. Profit is sanctioned over the possibility of massive death and destruction in nature. Conservatives support even more dangerous drilling off the coast of Alaska and are working to repeal the President’s moratorium on deep water drilling. Nature be damned; the oil companies have a right to make money, death or no death.

Directness of causation is a rarely noticed property of the conservative worldview. What are the causes of crime? Bad people, lock ‘em up, say conservatives. There are no social or economic causes, that is, systemic causes, in the conservative universe. So it is with the Death Gusher. Blame BP, the “bad actor.” Look for the immediate cause, but don’t look any further, at the profit-above-all system in which all oil companies operate, a system idolized by conservatives. Without an understanding of systemic causes, the causes cited above won’t make much sense.

A great many self-identified conservatives are actually what I’ve called “biconceptuals,” who have both conservative and progressive worldviews, but on different issues. They actually share a progressive view of nature: they love the beauty and appreciate the bounty of the Gulf, as it was before the Death Gusher. They want to save the environment of the Gulf and the way of life as it was. But shift the issue to the culpability of laissez-faire markets, the absolute right to profit from nature and profit-maximizing corporate practices, and their conservative worldview is activated. They will not be able to see the causal role of conservatism itself in the Death Gusher, and in the conservative ideology of greed and death that has given us the global warming disaster we now face worldwide.

Incidentally, there are bi-conceptual Democrats who share the conservative view of the market. Their views have led to many of President Obama’s problems with Democrats in Congress.

Finally, there is what progressive Democrats see as a contradiction: conservative advocates of smaller and weaker government and critics of governmental power trying to pin the Death Gusher Disaster on Obama for not having and using enough government power to prevent or lessen the disaster — even though the government has no capacity to plug oil wells.

The contradiction is logical, from a progressive point of view, but not from a conservative point of view. The highest value in the conservative universe is to preserve, defend, and extend conservatism itself. Anything that helps, or fails to harm, Obama contradicts this highest principle, since Obama’s deepest values on the whole fundamentally contradict conservative values. Conservatives, on principle, cannot let a major opportunity to criticize Obama go by. Of course, it also helps conservatives politically.

Those who are not held captive by the conservative worldview should be able to recognize the causal role of conservatism in the Death Gusher in the Gulf. Many progressives do, but keep it to themselves.

Progressives have been much too kind to conservatives on this matter. They have largely accepted the Bad Actor Frame, criticizing BP but not the whole industry and its practices. No one should be drilling miles under the sea, where oil comes out at 10,000 pounds per square inch. No matter how much profit is involved.

Conservatism gushes death — and not only in the Gulf of Mexico.

George Lakoff is the author of the best-selling book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which is available in our bookstore.

Double Dividend: Make Money by Saving Nature

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

Saving nature is the central issue. Carbon fuels destroy nature. The Gulf Death Gusher is the most visible sign. But signs are everywhere. Overall global warming increases hurricanes and floods, destroys habitats for plants, fish, birds, and ground animals, spreads deserts, causes deadly waves, and destroys glaciers and our polar ice caps. The use of carbon fuels has been destroying nature. Our job now is to save it.

Interestingly, there is a short, 39-page bill before the Senate that would allow us to save nature and get paid substantially for doing it. It is the CLEAR bill, first suggested by Peter Barnes, and introduced by Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME). It is simple, it works, and it pays you!

The principle behind it is this: We US citizens own the air over the US equally. Carbon-fuel sellers are dumping pollution in our air, not just poisoning the air, but destroying nature. At least they should pay for permits to dump, poison, and destroy, and should be forced year-by-year to stop. Who should the sellers pay for permits? All of us, the citizens who live here, should be paid handsomely. And there should be predictably fewer permits every year, till the practice ends or reaches tolerable levels.

Here’s how cap-and-cash works. Carbon-fuel profiteers introduce polluting fuels at only 2,000 distribution points in the US. The EPA already monitors how much polluting fuel each seller distributes. The CLEAR Act requires sellers to compete at auction each year to buy pollution-permits to sell their poisonous fuel, with a minimum and maximum price per permit set each year. Every year, for 40 years, the number of permits is reduced, until the 80% of the carbon pollution has been eliminated.

Who gets the permit money? You do. The money goes into a trust. Twenty-five percent goes to developing nonpolluting fuels and mitigating existing environmental disasters. Most of it — seventy-five percent — is distributed equally to all citizen-residents every month via electronic bank transfers. A family of four, the first year would get between $1,000 and $1,500, and the amount would go up each year. Why? The law of supply and demand. As there are fewer permits to sell fuel, and as the air gets cleaner, the price rises and you get more cash.

We all get a double dividend: cleaner air while saving nature and a significant cash dividend for owning the air. The hundreds of billions of dollars going to citizens will be spent all over the country and will create jobs. Everyone wins except the polluting fuels companies — the BP’s of the world.

The Criteria for Success

Administratively Simple: It eliminates bureaucracy, and it brings credibility and transparency. It just requires computer programs. It can be publicly checked to see if it is working. There are no hidden deals or details.

Market-driven without government
: The trust will be outside of government. Market mechanisms will determine the value of the permits and, hence, the money paid to citizens.

Gradual Transition: There would be no short-term market disruption. The transition would be gradual.

Market-driven and convenient: Businesses that use carbon fuels will not have to monitor their pollution. They will have a market-based incentive to switch gradually to non-polluting fuels.

Predictable: Business leaders will be able to plan for the future with no huge rush.

Encourages Entrepreneurship: It will create incentives for innovation and new energy industries.

Job-Creating: The cash going into new energy industries and being spent all over the country will create jobs.

The Opposite of Taxation

Anti-tax: The CLEAR bill puts money into the pockets of most citizens instead of taking money out.

Saves money: The cost of polluting fuels will rise temporarily, while you get cash. Who gets more, you or the oil and coal companies that raise their prices?

You will, unless you’re rich and can afford it! The richer you are, the more energy you use. If you are among the seventy percent of citizens in the lower and middle income brackets, you will get more in payments from the CLEAR bill than you will pay for increases in fuel prices.

Why will carbon fuel prices eventually fall? The prices depend on demand. Two factors will reduce demand over time.

First, the availability of non-carbon fuels. The CLEAR bill’s 25% will help develop non-carbon alternatives, which will reduce demand.

Second, investment in not-needing-carbon-fuels through, say, insulation and energy-efficiency, will reduce demand cumulatively. A barrel of oil or ton of coal saved the first year through insulation or energy efficiency will also be saved year-after-year. This will cumulatively reduce demand for carbon fuels.

Double job-creation: Eliminating the need, and hence the demand for carbon-polluting fuels will create jobs in two ways. First, new energy and energy-efficiency industries will need employees. Second, money saved on energy can be invested in, or spent on, enterprises that will create jobs. Both are market mechanisms. The jobs will mostly be in the private sector.

Politically Achievable: Putting money in the pockets of people who will spend it will be politically popular, as will job creation.

Who Loses?

Any legislation that greatly reduces the use of carbon fuels — whether the CLEAR bill or the current cap-and-trade bills — will create “losers.”

The carbon-polluting industries — the BP’s of the world — will lose, unless they invest their vast profits in non-polluting energy and in energy-efficiency: in industries that lower or eliminate the need for energy use. Those industries that are committed to the continued destruction of nature should lose, unless they change their commitment to saving nature.

The pollution dumping industries (e.g., electric power companies) will no longer be able to save money by not cleaning up their pollution and dumping it in our air instead. Having to switch to nonpolluting energy or pay more for polluting energy will count as a “loss,” since they will make less short-term profit. In the long run, if they make the switch to nonpolluting energy and energy efficiency, those profits will be made up. But the short-term “losses” are what will count to investors.

Right-wing politicians, supported by those industries, will also lose if they cannot deliver to their nature-destroying supporters a defeat of any nature-saving legislation. Those politicians will also lose because their anti-environmental ideology, which says that nature is to be indefinitely exploited for profit, will be defeated.

The Lies

Not surprisingly, those who stand to lose are spreading lies about carbon-cutting legislation.

The Tax Lie: Suppose there was a direct tax on carbon. At the gas pump, the gas companies would list this as a tax and add it to the price of gas at the pump. Now suppose that nature-saving legislation results in a sort-term rise in gas prices because oil companies want to preserve their previously astronomical level of profits. In both cases, the price of gas would rise. So, the argument goes, nature-saving legislation has the same result as a tax, and therefore it is a tax.

In the case of the CLEAR bill, the lie would be clear: Seventy percent of the population would be making more than enough extra money to offset the rise in prices. But what is not said, is that the prices at the pump would not rise if the oil companies made ordinary profits rather than excessive profits. The rise at the pump would, to a large extent, come from making sure that wealthy oil executives and investors insisting on outrageously high profits.

Also not figured in is the cost of continuing to destroy nature indefinitely into the future: the costs of more oil spills; more mountain tops blown into streams; of more glacial sources of water as glaciers and snowcaps melt; of more and more hurricanes, floods, and fires; of the loss of arable land to the spread of deserts; of the loss of fish and forests — and most of all, the cost of the quality of life on earth.

At the heart of the Tax Lie is the failure to figure in systemic costs, the real costs — both financial costs, life costs, and quality of life costs — and the failure to count greed.

The Job Lie: As we have seen the CLEAR bill would create jobs, as would any legislation seriously reducing or ending the use of polluting fuels. A certain number of jobs would indeed be lost gradually in the nature-destroying industries as demand for polluting fuels declined, but those would more than be made up for as nature-saving fuels and nature-saving energy efficiencies more than made up for the jobs lost.

The Simple Truths

We need to save nature, not destroy it. We can start to do so while making money, stimulating the economy, and creating jobs.

Tell everyone you know about the Clear Act.

Don’t Think of an Elephant, Know Your Values and Frame the Debate is available in our bookstore.

The Death Gusher in the Gulf Should Tell Us to End Offshore Drilling Forever

Friday, July 16th, 2010


A barrel saved is a barrel not needed — ever!

The Death Gusher in the Gulf should tell us to end offshore drilling forever.

The reason is simple: Systemic risk! www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-lakoff/our-energy-production-sys_b_586119.html

Better regulations won’t end what went wrong: Corporate greed, cutting corners to save money, lack of coordination among subcontractors, unforeseen factors, and just plain incompetence in private industry. Add that to isolated deep drilling sites in deep ocean where no human being can go, bad weather, and oil exploding out at 10,000 pounds per square inch, and you will virtually guarantee more Death Gushers.

Do we really need that oil? Could we make do with none of it?

With money, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” as Ben Franklin noted. But saving oil — not needing or using it — is a much better deal: it is cumulative.

An alternative exists, though it is badly named: “energy efficiency” and “conservation” miss the general point. A high percentage of oil and fossil fuels are wasted. Huge efficiency gains per barrel are immediately possible with the right investments. What is missed is the most basic of truths. Oil savings keep accumulating.

Take insulating a building. It will save a certain number of barrels of oil this year. And the same number next year. And the year after that, and after that, year-after-year! The barrels of oil saved multiply! Without the insulation, those barrels of oil would have to be drilled year-after-year, drill and drill and drill versus save and save and save. Every year, as energy is saved, fewer barrels are needed.

Moreover, offshore drilling is very expensive, even without death gushers. And it takes time – year after year. What if that cost and that time were invested cumulatively in NOT using oil? Suppose we ended offshore drilling and re-invested the equivalent amount of money and time in forms of “energy efficiency.” Would that offset the number of barrels drilled?

The Mismeasure of Energy Efficiency

The Department of Energy has misframed the energy efficiency issue. The calculation made is in money, not in barrels of oil saved. How many barrels of oil will the 2010 energy efficiency programs save not only in 2010, but in 2011, 2012, and so on … for, say, the next 30 years.  And if we putting the drilling investments into all the job-creating ways of saving energy, how many barrels will be saved on 2011’s energy efficiency programs over the following 30 years. And so on.  Will those multiplied, accumulated savings tell us that we don’t need to do offshore drilling after all? Or that we can cut it down significantly?

And how many jobs will be created? Real, good-paying, non-exportable jobs!

We need to know. As soon as possible.

It may be the case that ending offshore drilling is good, not bad, for the economy – and the future of the world.

Secretary Chu, please add up our energy efficiency savings in terms of barrels of oil saved, with cumulative estimates over the next 30 or so years.

I make this suggestion with the greatest respect for programs already in motion from energy efficiency and conservation funding.

  • Development of an energy efficiency and conservation strategy
  • Building energy audits and retrofits, including weatherization
  • Financial incentive programs for energy efficiency such as energy savings  performance contracting, on-bill financing, and revolving loan funds
  • Transportation programs to conserve energy
  • Building code development, implementation, and inspections
  • Installation of distributed energy technologies including combined heat and power and district heating and cooling systems
  • Material conservation programs including source reduction, recycling, and recycled content procurement programs
  • Reduction and capture of greenhouse gas emissions generated by landfills or similar waste-related sources
  • Installation of energy efficient traffic signals and street lighting
  • Installation of renewable energy technologies on government buildings
  • Any other appropriate activity that meets the purposes of the program and is approved by DOE

Add to that all the many ways that oil is used in agriculture and could be saved — fertilizers and pesticides could be eliminated by organic farming methods, as well as transportation fuel that could be eliminated by the localization of food production. Instead of investing in offshore oil, we should be investing in NOT NEEDING OIL.  Think about greening our long-term infrastructure — our buildings, our cars, our public transportation, our industry, our military bases, our homes.

It saves a certain number of barrels of oil right away, barrels that need not be drilled the first year. And it keeps saving that many barrels of oil every year. That means that the yearly oil-barrel savings accumulate; and less and less oil has to be drilled.

Meanwhile, good meaningful jobs increase here, green jobs that cannot be outsourced. The economy does not lose, it benefits. And so do we all — no risk of future offshore oil-drilling disasters, a serious move to lessen climate change and abate future climate disasters (e.g., hurricanes), a cleaner environment.

This, of course, means a decrease in oil company profits. Unless the oil companies seriously invest in the development of alternative fuels and oil-saving industries.

The Gulf Oil-drilling Disaster should teach us many things, among them:

Corporations are too greedy, too powerful, and all too often incompetent.

We cannot depend on oil companies to protect us and our environment.

There is no way around it; oil is dirty, morally as well physically.

We are told that oil from offshore drilling is necessary, as we transition to new forms of energy. But that estimate does not include the cumulative year-after-year savings of NOT NEEDING OIL. Imagine this: Instead of investments in the cost of drilling in the deep ocean and subsidizing oil companies, instead of paying for oil year after year, invest in jobs that would eliminate oil needs, as suggested by the energy department programs listed above.

Money is fungible: A penny saved is a penny earned.

Oil is cumulatively fungible: A barrel saved is a barrel not needed, year after year after year.

The lesson of the Death Gusher is clear: SAVE, BABY, SAVE!

Disaster Messaging Could be Fatal to America’s Future

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

This originally appeared on Daily Kos

Here’s a description the typical situation.

• The Republicans outmessage the Democrats. The Democrats, having no effective response, face disaster: They lose politically, either in electoral support or failure on crucial legislation.

• The Democrats then take polls and do focus groups. The pollsters discover that extremist Republicans control the most common (”mainstream”) way of thinking and talking about the given issue.

• The pollsters recommend that Democrats move to the right: adopt conservative Republican language and a less extreme version of conservative policy, along with weakened versions of some Democratic ideas.

• The Democrats believe that, if they follow this advice, they can gain enough independent and Republican support to pass legislation that, at least, will be some improvement on the extreme Republican position.

• Otherwise, the pollsters warn, Democrats will lose popular support — and elections — to the Republicans, because “mainstream” thought and language resides with the Republicans.

• Believing the pollsters, the Democrats change their policy and their messaging, and move to the right.

• The Republicans demand even more and refuse to support the Democrats.

We have seen this on issues like health care, immigration, global warming, finance reform, and so on. We are seeing it again on the Death Gusher in the Gulf. It happens even with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.

Why? Is there anything the Democrats can do about it? First, it has to be understood. It doesn’t just happen.

The Difference Between Framing and Messaging

Framing is the most commonplace thing we do with thought and language. Frames are the cognitive structures we think with. They are physical, embodied in neural circuitry. Frames come in systems. Their circuitry is strengthened and often made permanent through use: the more the circuits are used, the stronger they get. Effective frames are not isolated. They build on, and extend, other frames already established.

All words are defined in terms of conceptual frames. When the words are heard, the frames are strengthened — not just the immediate frames, but the whole system.

Fit matters. The brain is a “best-fit” system.  The better a new frame “fits” existing frames, the more effective it will be; that is, the more people will think, and make decisions, using that frame.

Frame conflict

The activation of one brain circuit may either activate or inhibit another. A frame that fits a system will activate other frames in the system and make them stronger. Strongly activated frames will weaken frames that they inhibit.

There are progressive and conservative frame systems. Activating the conservative frame system, weakens the progressive frame system — both individual frames for particular issues, but also the system as a whole.

That is how framing works. There are consequences.

High-Level, Moral Frames Matter More

Higher-level frames, deeper in the system, have a disproportionate effect.

The more the language of frame is repeated, the stronger the frame gets, along with the system the frame is in. And the weaker the frames of the contradictory system gets. The stronger high-level frames are, the more effective frames that fit them will be.  And the less effective frames that contradict them will be.

In politics, the high-level frames are the moral systems that define what is “right” for a conservative or progressive.

Most Framing is Unconscious

Frames are conceptual; they are the elements of thought. Most thought is unconscious. Words activate frames. We are rarely conscious of the frames that are activated by the words we hear. Yet those frames are there in our brain circuitry, and more we hear the words, the stronger the frames get, even though we aren’t aware of it.

Framing is Long-term

Framing is the establishment of permanent (or long-term) high-level frames and systems of frames with the brains of voters. Framing can be done by long-term careful political messaging, or through education (say, by controlling school textbooks).

Prototype Framing

An important part of framing is the establishment of prototypes: social stereotypes, prototypes (typical case, ideals, nightmares, salient exemplars). Stereotypes are used in automatic reasoning and decision-making.

Bi-conceptual Framing

For important domains of thought, like morality, religion, and politics, it is commonplace for people to have two inconsistent frame systems that inhibit each other.  When those frames apply to different issues and in different contexts, we speak of “bi-conceptuals.” When you can shift back and forth on an issue, you are bi-conceptual on that issue. That is, you can frame the issue in two ways, using inconsistent higher-level frame systems.

Contested concepts

In politics, the high-level frames are moral frames. There are opposing conservative and progressive moral systems. Important political concepts are “contested,” overlapping in some classic cases, but diverging in content depending on the moral system. Thus, vital political concepts like Life, Freedom, Responsibility, Government, Accountability, Equality, Fairness, Empathy, Property, Security, and so on are contested.

A major goal of political framing is to get your version of contested concepts accepted by the voters. Messaging can then use these concepts and their language freely and effectively.
That is how framing works generally — independent of whether the frames are used in politics. In politics, bi-conceptual voters can shift back and forth on an issue, depending on how the issue is framed in terms of higher-level political systems.

Political Messaging

Messages use words. The words activate frames. In political messages, you  have a double intention: to get voters to think using your frames and to keep voters from thinking using the other side’s frames, which contradict yours.

Your message will be more effective if it fits existing high-level frames in the brains of voters, and less effective it contradicts such high-level frames.

Political messaging and bi-conceptual voters

Your goal, with bi-conceptual voters, is to activate your system of political frames and inhibit the other side’s system of political frames. Your message should therefore fit your high-level frame system, and it should not fit the other side’s high-level frame system. If it fits the other side’s high-level frame system, your message will be helping the other side, because it will tend to make voters think using their frame system.

Why Does Disaster Messaging Arise?

Suppose the other side has structured its messaging over a long period of time to consistently strengthen its high-level frames, prototypes, and versions of contested concepts in the brains of voters. They can now do effective messaging by using those high-level, morally-based frames in messages that evoke the existing strong high-level frames.

Why Conservatives Consistently Win Messaging Battles

In the US, conservatives have set up an elaborate messaging system. It starts with an understanding of long-term framing and message experts who know how to use existing their long-term frame systems. Then there are think tanks, with experts who understand the high-level frame system and how it applies to the full range of issues. There are training institutes that teach tens of thousands of conservatives a year to think and talk using these framing systems and their language and argument forms. There are regular gatherings to consolidate messaging and policy around a contemporary issue that fits the conservative moral system. There are booking agencies that book conservative spokespeople on tv, talk radio, etc. There are lecture venues and booking agencies for conservative spokespeople. There are conservative media going on 24/7/365.

As a result, conservative language is heard constantly in many parts of the US. Conservative language automatically and unconsciously activates conservative frames and the high-level framing systems they are part of. As the language is heard over and over, the circuitry linking the language to conservative frames becomes stronger.  Because the synapses in the neural circuits are stronger, they are easier to activate. As a result, conservative language tends to become the normal, preferred “mainstream” language for discussing current issues.

This messaging system has existed and has been extended and strengthened over many years. Democrats have a few of these elements, but they are relatively ineffective, since they tend to view messaging as short-term and issue-based, rather than long-term and morally based. Democrats tend not to understand how framing works, and often confuse framing (which is deep, long-term, systematic, morality-based, and conceptual) with messaging (which is shallow, short-term, ad hoc, policy-based, and linguistic).

This situation puts Democrats at a messaging disadvantage relative to conservatives, which leads to conservative victories. Hence the regular need for disaster messaging.

Polling and The “Mainstream”

When the Democrats are out-messaged, they call upon polling and focus groups to given an “empirical, evidential” account of public opinion and which language is preferred by the public. The “evidence” comes from polls and focus groups that test the normal “mainstream” language and logic, versus language and logic that is not “mainstream.” This is, naturally, conservative language and logic, because the conservative messaging system has systematically made it that way patiently over years. The pollsters therefore report that the “mainstream” of Americans prefer the conservative language and logic, and the policies that go with them. The pollsters then suggest moving to right to go to where the public is. They then construct and test messages that move enough to right to satisfy the “mainstream.” They also construct “good arguments.” If the “good arguments” activate the conservative worldview, the conservative position will just get stronger in the brains of the voters.

What’s Wrong?

When the Democrats use conservative language, they activate more than the conservative framing on the given issue.  They also activate and strengthen the high level, deep conservative moral frames. This tends to make voters more conservative overall — and leads them to choose the real conservative position on the given issue, rather than the sort of conservative version provided by the democrats.

Disaster framing is a disaster.

The “Center”

There are bi-conceptuals of many kinds— you can have partly conservative, partly progressive  views on many issues, and people vary considerably. There is no general ideology of the center. The myth that there is a single “center” is an artifact of current polling practices.
Here’s how this works. Ask people whether they When you pick a given issue and poll on the most common “mainstream” language. It will be favored by both full conservatives and bi-conceptuals who happen to be conservative on that issue. Those bi-conceptuals may identify as “democrats” or “liberal-leaning” or “independents.”  With suitable framing, those bi-conceptuals should shift on the issue, while the true conservatives will not.

Do they form a “center?”

That is an empirical question, but they do not appear to. Change the issue and a new issue-specific “center” may appear, person-by-person.

Such polling is rarely done, so claims about a single “center” — or a single left-to-right spectrum — should not be believed.

The Importance of Bi-conceptuals

Pollsters tend not to test for bi-conceptuals. They are not just undecideds, or independents, or mere swing voters. They are voters who have both relatively strong progressive and conservative high-level moral systems and apply them in different contexts to different issues. There are usually a significant number — in the US my guess is around 20% ± 3. They often determine elections. If they are given only conservative messaging, that messaging will activate their conservative frame system. If they are given progressive messages often enough over a reasonably long period, there is a good chance that their progressive moral system will be activated and strengthened.

The directly contradicts the traditional view of mainstream pollsters. As a result, it has not been tested empirically on a large scale, though there is one solid result.


Don’t move to the right. Start thinking longer term. Build as much of a communications system as possible. Design long-term framing for your own high level, moral system and basic policy domains. Fit your immediate messaging needs to the long-term frames. Carry on both kinds of messaging in parallel.


Design polling to study bi-conceptuals through value-based frame-shifting.  Always use batteries of questions.

How Conservatives Change Policies Without Winning Elections

How do conservative Republicans have a large effect on policy even when they are largely out of office? Their communication system is never out of office. That allows a conservative minority to stonewall and resist and gain popular approval for it. Their communication system intimidates Democrats into disaster messaging and policy shifts to the right.  The Republicans don’t have move the country in a conservative direction by holding office. Their communications system can get the Democrats to move the country to the right by forcing disaster messaging upon them.

The example of immigration

The most recent example of disaster framing is reported on in an important Politico article by Carrie Budoff Brown, “Dems Tough New Immigration Pitch”.  It’s an excellent piece, and I will be quoting liberally from it.

Brown reports that Democrats have taken “an enforcement-first, law-and-order, limited-compassion pitch that now defines the party’s approach to the issue.” Democratic leaders are now following the advice of pollsters Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake, and Guy Molyneux and strategist/focus-group dialer Drew Westen: Talk like Republicans.

“The 12 million people who unlawfully reside the country? Call them “illegal immigrants,” not “undocumented workers,” the pollsters say.” The pollster team was organized by John Podesta of the Center for American Progress.

“When [voters] hear ‘undocumented worker,’ they hear a liberal euphemism, it sounds to them like liberal code,” said Drew Westen, a political consultant who has helped Sharry hone the message through dial testing. “I am often joking with leaders of progressive organizations and members of Congress, ‘If the language appears fine to you, it is probably best not to use it. You are an activist, and by definition, you are out of the mainstream.’”

And craft a policy with lots of Republican elements.  Here is what President Obama, following the pollsters’ advice, said at a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House:

“The way to fix our broken immigration system is through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. That means responsibility from government to secure our borders, something we have done and will continue to do. It means responsibility from businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers — they’ve got to be held accountable. It means responsibility from people who are living here illegally. They’ve got to admit that they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty, and learn English, and get right before the law — and then get in line and earn their citizenship.”

Conservative Republican elements are being communicated here: Use force against the illegals (”secure our borders”); get tough (”held accountable”}; personal, not social, “responsibility”; criminals (”living here illegally”); be punitive (”admit they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty”); English only (”learn English”); they’re getting free handouts (”earn their citizenship.”).

Put aside for a moment the substance of the policy, and notice that these are conservative Republican themes that fit a conservative Republican view of the world.  Democrats, starting with the President, are using the language that activates the conservative Republican view of the world. Why? As Brown reports,

“We lost control of the message in the 2007 debate,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant rights group that worked with Center for American Progress founder John Podesta on the messaging overhaul.

“We were on the inside fighting off amendments, and the other side was jacking up their opponents and getting Rush and Hannity and O’Reilly on fire about this. We needed to do a much better job on communications.”

But the biggest factor came from Greenberg’s polls: the threat that Democrats could lose “swing districts” in elections, but could win them with this message. So the Democrats not only adopted the message, but much of the largely conservative policy that went with it.

A major feature, however, is that the “illegals” would be legalized while on the path to citizenship. The conservative response is obvious: It’s just amnesty warmed over. The Democrats are still soft on “illegals” — a term now embraced by Democrats who follow Drew Westen’s recommendation.

With the Administration’s lawsuit against the recent Arizona anti-immigrant law, you can bet that the Republicans will use that lawsuit to pin “soft on illegals” on Democratic candidates.  And the Administration’s new “tough” right-wing rhetoric will only help support the Republicans.

Repetition over The Long Term

The only way progressives can avoid the disaster of disaster messaging is by regularly saying what they believe, in an effective messaging system — out loud, over and over, with the idea of changing how the public thinks and talks over the long haul.

Here is an uncompromising example of a possible op-ed:

End A Bad Law: 287 g

Bad laws, laws that hurt far more than they help, should be eliminated. Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is a bad law. Here’s why.

Almost all immigrants who entered the US without papers are honest, hard-working, decent people, who have often risked their lives to come the America. They do essential work, mostly for low wages, work that makes the lifestyles of most Americans possible: cleaning homes, caring for children and the elderly, gardening, cooking in restaurants, working on farms, doing odd jobs, working on construction. They deserve our gratitude. They are America’s mainstays, good guys. There are twelve million of them in America, helping us all live better every day.

A small number, as in any population, are bad guys: occasional murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers, gang members, and thieves. They need to be captured and convicted.

But 287 g mostly harasses, jails, harms, and deports the good guys, and in doing so, mostly lets the bad guys escape.

287g allows local police and jailers to act as deportation agents with ultimate power over the lives of the good guys, who are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Their very entry into the US without papers constitutes sufficient “guilt” to justify their mistreatment and deportation.

287 g promotes a form of racial profiling. 287 g is immoral, an affront to the human rights that define what America is about.

287 g is also ineffective in getting the bad guys, partly because it uses so many resources on going after the good guys.

As Alex DiBrancoreports,  the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that 287(g) is poorly managed, ineffectively organized, and arbitrarily implemented from place to place; ignores or actually provides false information to the public; fails to focus on non-citizens who pose a safety threat; gives shoddy training; and lacks oversight and has not terminated those local partners who have clearly violated the terms of the agreement — local law enforcement officials running amok in hunting down harmless undocumented immigrants. 287(g) also deters undocumented immigrants who witness a crime from coming forward and encourages racial profiling in which Latinos are “guilty until proven innocent.”

287 g should be ended, and replaced by a law that protects the good guys and pays serious attention to catching the bad guys. It is not just ineffective; it is downright immoral.

The Point

Almost every day, I get a request from somewhere in the US — or various other countries — to help some group do disaster messaging.  It’s sad. Reframing rarely works with disaster messaging.

To work long-term, progressive messaging must be sincere and direct, must reflect progressive moral values, and must be repeated. Progressive framing is about saying what you believe, telling the truth, and activating the progressive worldview already present in the minds of those who are partly conservative and partly progressive.

Framing is, of course, about policy, more than about messaging. What you say should go hand-in-hand with what you think and do.

And, of course, the best messaging requires an excellent communications system, or it won’t be heard. Progressives have the money to build such a system. The question is whether they understand the desperate need for such a system, and whether they have the will to build it.

George Lakoff is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute. He is the author of many books including Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, available in our bookstore.

The Democratic Leadership Doesn’t Understand the Power of Language and Framing, What Two Polls Show

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

This article originally appeared on Buzzflash.

The Poll Democrats Need to Know About 

Framing, Value-Shifting, the California Budget Crisis, and Why Democrats So Often Act Like Republicans

This is a case study of how inadequate polling can lead Democrats to accept and promote a radical Republican view of reality. This paper compares two polls, one excellent and revealing, the other inadequate, misleading, and counterproductive. The issues raised are framing and value-shifting (where voters shift, depending on the wording of questions, between two contradictory political world-views they really hold, but about different issues). It also discusses how polls can reveal the difference between what words are commonly assumed to mean, versus what they really mean to voters — and how polls can test this. 

It is a truism that poll results can depend on framing. For example, the NY Times reported last month on a NYT/CBS Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell poll on whether “homosexuals” or “gay men and lesbians” should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Seventy-nine percent of Democrats said they support permitting gay men and lesbians to serve openly. Fewer Democrats however, just 43 percent, said they were in favor of allowing homosexuals to serve openly. That’s a 36 percent framing shift on the same literal issue, but not surprising since the words evoked very different frames, one about sex and the other about rights.  Newsworthy for the NY Times, but hardly earthshaking.

But a recent poll by David Binder, perhaps the premier California pollster, showed a framing shift of deep import for Democrats — a shift of 69 percent on the same issue, depending on the framing. It was noteworthy not just because of the size of the framing shift on the main question, but because the shift was systematic. Roughly, around 18 percent of voters showed that their values are not fixed. They think BOTH like liberals and conservatives — depending on how they understand the issue. With a liberal value-framing, they give liberal answers; with a conservative value-framing, they give conservative answers. What is most striking is that conservatively framed poll questions are all too often written by Democrats thinking they are neutral. The result is a Democratic move to the right for what are thought to be “pragmatic” reasons, but which are actually self-defeating.

Here is the background.

California is the only state with a legislature run by minority rule. Because it takes a 2/3 vote of both houses to either pass a budget or raise revenue via taxation, 33.4 percent of either house can block the entire legislative process until it gets what it wants. At present 63 percent of both houses are Democrats and 37 percent are far-right Republicans who have taken the Grover Norquist pledge not to raise revenue and to shrink government till it can be drowned in a bathtub. They run the legislature by saying no. This has led to gridlock, huge deficits from lack of revenue, and cuts so massive as to threaten the viability of the state.

Unfortunately, most Californians are unaware of the cause of the crisis, blaming “the legislature,” when the cause is only 37 percent of  “the legislature,” the 37 percent that runs the legislature under minority rule.

I realized last year that the budget crisis was really a democracy crisis, and that a ballot initiative that could be passed by only a majority could eliminate the 2/3 rules, replacing minority rule by majority rule. The idea was to bring democracy to California. Only two words are needed to be changed in the state Constitution, with “two-thirds” becoming “a majority” in two paragraphs, one on the budget and the other on revenue. The changes could be described in a 14-word, single-sentence initiative that went to the heart of the matter — democracy. It is called The California Democracy Act:

All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote.

One would think voters would like the idea of democracy — and a ballot initiative they could actually understand. And they do. David Binder of DBR Research recently conducted a poll showing that likely voters support it by a 73-to-22 percent margin — a difference of 51 percent!

There were 800 randomly selected likely voters, with a ±3.5 percent margin of error — and 53 questions. In short, it was a thorough and responsible poll.

In California, the Attorney General gets to write the “title and summary” — the description of the initiative that actually appears on the ballot. At present, the Attorney General is Jerry Brown, who is running for Governor. He had announced that he was against getting rid of the 2/3 rule for taxes, though in favor of a majority for budget alone. The result would make Democrats responsible for the budget, but with no extra money to put in it, they would be presiding over the further decline of the state.

When the Democracy Act came across Brown’s desk, he personally penned the following title and summary:

Changes the legislative vote requirement necessary to pass the budget, and to raise taxes from two-thirds to a simple majority. Unknown fiscal impact from lowering the legislative vote requirement for spending and tax increases.  In some cases, the content of the annual state budget could change and / or state tax revenues could increase.  Fiscal impact would depend on the composition and actions of future legislatures.

Instead of the original initiative text, Brown’s wording would appear on the ballot if it qualified, and would have to appear on all petitions. This wording uses the word “taxes” three times paired with the verbs “raise” and “increase,” as well as the conservative phrase for vilifying liberals “spending and tax increases.” 

When DBR Research polled voters on both the original initiative text and the Brown title and summary, the results came out as follows:

                                   Support            Oppose      Difference

Original initiative text          73%                  22%               +51%

Brown title and summary              38%                  56%       -18% 

The Brown wording shifted the result by 69 percent! The largest shift Binder had ever seen.

But this was not mere wording. I had expected a large shift, but the neural theory behind my cognitive linguistics research had made a deeper prediction: Many voters have both conservative and liberal value-systems in their brain circuitry, linking each value-system to different issues. Each value-system, when activated, shuts down the other, and each can be activated by language. The prediction was that this shift was systematic, tied to value-based ideas — not just a matter of one wording or another.

A second prediction was made from long experience. After a strong attack from the right, a liberal poll advantage on an initiative can be expected to drop by around 10 percent.

Brilliantly, the DBR poll tested both for the systematic effect and simulated the effect of a right wing attack. The systematic effect was tested by a battery of pro-arguments followed by a battery of con-arguments, each in distinct wording. The pro-arguments were given first, followed by the battery of con-arguments. Right after the con arguments, the original wording and the attorney general’s title and summary were tested again.

                                   Support            Oppose      Difference

Original initiative text          62 %                  34 %             +28 %

Brown title and summary    43 %                  52 %              -9 %

                                                       37 % shift

As predicted, in the face of con-arguments, the 73 – 33 percent advantage for the original initiative dropped to a 62 – 34 percent advantage, a loss of 11 points, but still a 28-point advantage. The attorney general’s wording also suffered a loss after the pro-arguments, going from 38-to-56 percent before the arguments to 43-to-52 percent after the arguments, a 9 percent drop for the attorney general’s language, about as expected. The total shift after the arguments, from +28 to -9 is 37 percent.

The current explanation of the shift is as follows. There are two political value-systems that voters have, call them Pro and Con. (You might think them as Progressive and Conservative, though no overall views are tested in the poll.) About 40-to-45 percent have a consistently Pro-worldview. About 35-to-40 percent have a consistently Con worldview.  About 18 percent have BOTH worldviews, and the understanding provided by language can trigger one or the other, resulting in a shift.

Now things get really interesting. The DBR poll found a way to test this explanation.  The respondents to the poll were asked if they found the pro- and con-arguments convincing or unconvincing. On the battery of pro-arguments, an average of 57 percent found the pro-arguments convincing and 38 percent found them unconvincing.

Read the whole article on Buzzflash.

Winning the Language of Health Care Reform

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Life and Freedom are moral issues. It is time for Democrats to talk about health in those terms, beyond just policy terms like health insurance reform, bending the cost curve, types of exchanges, etc. 

Health means life. If you get a major illness or injury and cannot get it treated adequately, you could die. And tens of thousands do. 

Health means freedom. If you have a serious illness or injury and cannot get it treated, your freedom will be limited in many ways. Your physical freedom: you may no longer have the freedom to move around. Your economic freedom: you may not be able to work or your medical bills may impoverish you. Your emotional freedom: you will not be free to live a happy life. 

Health is therefore a moral issue of the highest order. And it is a patriotic issue. Health security is a problem for far more Americans than military security. Your security is far more likely to be threatened by the lack of treatment for illness and injury than by any likely terrorist attack.  

Real terror is seen in the thousands of letters sent to the White House and Congress by people whose lives have been shattered or threatened by the behavior of the health insurance corporations.  Wellpoint, which made $2.7 billion in fourth quarter profits in 2009, tried to raise its Anthem/Blue Cross premiums 39% in California. Wellpoint made its profits by NOT giving health care. It treated 2.2million fewer people. It found a way NOT to treat people who needed treatment, either by refusing to insure them, or dropping them as clients, or denying authorizations. If you are sick or injured and that happens to you, you face terror — very real terror.  

That’s when “health maintenance organizations” (HMOs) become health terror organizations.  

The Obama administration has been missing the moral arguments in the health care debate, while conservatives always hit their moral targets.  Where the conservatives argue loss of freedom (“government takeover”) and life (“death panels” and abortion), the administration has been giving policy wonk arguments about economic and pragmatic policy details that the public cannot understand: health exchanges, percentages of the poverty line (133% vs. 150%), and so on. They are real enough. But they do not communicate the moral issues. 

Morality and Policy

Why should Congress move to reconciliation? Because it is moral. It is the right thing to do, because it will enhance life and freedom. 

Why should the public option be in the reconciliation bill? Because it is right and practical: it allows the market to police the insurance companies — to keep their greed from overwhelming the life and freedom of tens of millions of Americans. And a public plan— an American Plan!—  gives you an your doctor much more freedom to determine your treatment, with no profit incentives for insurance companies to deny you care. 

Why should national exchanges, not state exchanges, be in the reconciliation bill? Because they provides greater economic freedom — through bigger pools, which means much more affordable insurance for all.  Affordability means economic freedom! 

Why cover folks up to 150%, not just 133%, of the poverty line. To offer life and freedom to many more of our fellow Americans. 

Why should anti-trust exemptions be ended for health insurance companies? Economic freedom! Anti-trust exemptions function like corporate bailouts. They transfer the money from ordinary people into corporate coffers. By reducing or eliminating competition, corporations can charge more for less treatment to fewer people. Those extra charges, plus out of pocket costs when we are denied care under the plans, come out of our pockets. Anti-trust exemptions take money out our pockets and put it into corporate profits. They threaten our economic freedom. 

And how should we be thinking about the passage of a health plan that makes progress but falls short of what is needed? We should be taking it as a national commitment — a moral commitment — to health for Americans. It is a commitment to doing what is right, to life, freedom, and health security, a first step of many steps to come. 

It is time to return to the moral fundamentals. Health security is deeply patriotic — perhaps our most important form of security. Health means life. Health means freedom. Everyone can understand that.  

George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. His latest book is “The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics.”

This article was originally published on BuzzFlash.com.