I have a regular feature here that I call “Yucky Framing.” I use that expression to describe a particular kind of argument, where the human side of life is defended in market terms and anything without a dollar value is dismissed as a sentimental abstraction. The New Republic recently ran an article on yucky framing, although Adam Gaffney didn’t actually call it that. The article is a review of a book called The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life by Eli Cook. It traces the history of conceptualizing human life as income producing capital.
It’s a type of argument that many of us—myself included—often make in the policy world to this day, and that we are all very used to hearing: It just makes economic sense. In September in the New Yorker, Sheelah Kolhatkar argued in a piece titled “The Cost of the Opioid Crisis
” that President Trump should tackle the opioid crisis not merely because of lives lost, but because of its economic cost to the nation—citing the $78.5 billion figure with which I began this essay. “If Trump were running the U.S. government like a business,” she writes, “as he often claims to be doing, then he would have made tackling an inefficiency of such scale a priority.”
We are accustomed to thinking… that this is how change is wrought in the real world—by convincing policy elites that this or that policy is economically rational. But as the many examples in Cook’s book demonstrate, arguments from economic rationality can obscure as much as they reveal. For if capitalism meant the transformation of land and lives into units of wealth-producing human capital, it also meant the transformation of sickness and death into a currency of wealth-reducing decapitalization. And this poses a question: wealth for whom?
Indeed, wealth for whom is the big question. Can we be expected to ever tackle the problem of poverty if we view debtors as valuable engines of wealth production for banks, and assume that what is good for the bank is by definition a social good?
One of the historical examples in Cook’s book is arguments over slavery.
A central thesis of Cook’s book is that over the nineteenth century, progress was increasingly judged not through “moral statistics” but through “capitalizing ones.” While “moral statistics” take the measure of individual welfare—through figures on, for instance, mental suffering, impoverishment or imprisonment, and disability or death—“capitalizing” statistics measure economic costs, such as the price in dollars of “lost productivity.” Reformers increasingly relied, Cook argues, on the latter to advocate for social change.
Or in my terminology: It was during the 19th Century that people started to use “yucky framing” when they wanted to be taken seriously. They started trying to convince people who had already done the emotional gymnastics to justify the morality of owning other people. Seemingly unmoved by appeals to a sense of right and wrong, abolitionists tried to argue that even if owning humans was not morally horrendous, it didn’t make economic sense anyway.
Capitalizing discourse has gotten stronger as the years have passed. In the extreme, you get episodes like the White House Budget Director unable to come up with any argument in favor of feeding homebound seniors and low-income children because he can’t see how it improves worker productivity, spurs growth or creates jobs.
Similarly, Senator Orrin Hatch finds it difficult to justify continued funding of the CHIP children’s health program, seeing sick children and their families as “people who won’t help themselves.”
We’ve become so accustomed to making the case that arts matter because they spur tourism and economic growth, that philanthropy is good PR, and that not having sick employees increases productivity that the idea of “moral statistics” takes a moment to process.
We tend to think of the pre-19th Century expression from the preamble to the Constitution “promote the general welfare” in economic terms. The word “welfare” itself has come to mean money given to people for to stabilize their financial situation. Of course, the word itself is a synonym for well-being. What would our country look like if moral arguments predominated and if our model of “welfare” was based on maximizing human health and dignity?
Today I was doing research for a speech I am writing for a client, and the theme reminded me of the 2004 DNC speech that launched Barack Obama’s national political career. When I listened to it again, it struck me that Obama used moral rather than “capitalizing” language.
This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and commitments, to hold them against a hard reality and see how we are measuring up, to the legacy of our forbearers, and the promise of future generations…
For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It’s that fundamental belief – I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper – that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. “E pluribus unum.” Out of many,one.
This is who we are, as a nation. This is what we believe. We have a moral responsibility that is larger than our self-interest, and we demonstrate who we are by acting in accordance with those values.
Obama’s success shows that America–at least a large part of the electorate–hungered for a discourse based on a moral, not just a capitalizing foundation.
These are moral claims:
Your factory closed and you are out of work, and you have value.
You’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness, and you have value.
You have been harassed by your boss, and you have value.
You work for wages, not capital, and you have value.
You have dark skin, and you have value.
You can’t afford a lobbyist, and you have value.
Your grandmother and children do nothing to create jobs, and they have value.
Hillary Clinton could not generate Obama levels of enthusiasm. That is, admittedly, an unfairly high bar. Obama had a rare rhetorical gift. Yet, I would argue that as a female candidate she had some additional obstacles. Women are always suspected of being emotional, sentimental and un-serious. A female candidate has to work extra hard to show that she is the one who can be trusted with the 3 AM phone call of a famous Clinton ad. She has to demonstrate her seriousness.
In our culture serious arguments feature capital rather than moral discourse. But it is moral rhetoric that excites the imagination and provides a stirring aspirational message. So Hillary talked about her detailed plan for jobs, where Bill had famously told someone in his audience “I feel your pain.”
These empathetic, moral claims carry a lot of weight with voters. There were elements of the Bernie Sanders and Trump campaigns that spoke to American’s desire for a politics of human dignity rather than humans as units of capital. Trump fans liked that he claimed to be so rich he could not be bought by lobbyists and would “drain the swamp.” Sanders liked the idea that he might reset government to put their interests above those of the “millionaires and billionaires” who viewed them as units of capital. Both Sanders and Trump were effective in associating Clinton with Wall Street and therefore a mindset of capitalization.
How all of this led to the politics we currently have is too complex and multi-faceted for my sociological ability to explain. But perhaps it is time we unlinked the association of capital with seriousness. The things that are difficult to quantify (market externalities the economists call them) are deadly serious to human beings living in this world.