Yucky Framing

Yucky Framing: The Dollar Value of a Farmer’s Life

Somewhere along the line we assimilated the idea that in order for an argument to be taken seriously it had to be framed in quantifiable economic terms. People who are making a moral or aesthetic or quality of life case feel the need to make the argument that somehow doing the less moral thing is also more expensive.

A story in the Economic Hardship Reporting Project goes this route in an article on the high suicide rate among America’s farmers. It is higher than the rate of suicide among military families although it receives much less attention.

The article talks about a plan to replicate a successful local mental health initiative on a national scale, a program called  the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). The program was approved as part of the 2008 US Farm Bill, it was not funded. The man behind the program Dr. Mike Rosmann complained that politicians “promised support to my face and to others who approached them to support the FRSAN, but when it came time to vote … they did not support appropriating money … Often they claimed it was an unnecessary expenditure which would increase the national debt, while also saying healthy farmers are the most important asset to agricultural production.”

You could make a moral argument that such politicians have a set of human values that are seriously out of whack. Instinctively, however, well-intentioned people try to argue in the language that they presumably understand: money. It’s not that having farmers living with such desperation that they end up taking their own lives is a shame upon a wealthy country that could do much better by them. The argument instead becomes that it’s actually more expensive to have farmers kill themselves than to fund the program.

The program, which would have created regional and national helplines and provided counseling for farmers, was estimated to cost the government $18m annually. Rosmann argues that US farmers lost by suicide totals much more than this – in dollars, farmland, national security in the form of food, and the emotional and financial toll on families and entire communities.

I am sure that Dr. Rosmann does not actually view the farmers who call him for help in these marketplace terms, but the fact that he feels compelled to argue in this way says something about our culture.

The thing is, these arguments don’t actually seem to work. The political party in power now has demonstrated with its tax bill that they are not opposed to deficits, they just have particular priorities about what they think is worth going into debt for– and it seems that it is not preventing suicide in agricultural communities. Perhaps it is time to start making unashamed moral arguments about what our priorities should be.

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Yucky Framing: The Economic Impact of Crib Deaths

I have become frustrated with meaningless news stories that talk about “rolling back regulations” but do not talk about what those regulations are. The president on December 14 had a big media event where he cut a giant red ribbon to represent bureaucratic red tape.

Most of the stories on this spectacle followed the lead of the event organizers and talked about the number of pages of regulations being cut. To cheer cutting regulations without saying what they are is foolish. “Yea, extra rat parts in my food!”

I searched up and down for a list of what those regulations were. The best article I found was at Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s reporters Alan Levin and Jesse Hamilton did the work of going through government records to identify all of the regulations that the administration was touting as deregulation victories. The frame of the article was that the president was taking credit for ending regulations that were already dead.

A rollback of one of the regulations, which fined nursing homes that delivered substandard care and put residents at risk, got a scathing treatment in Esquire.

In my quest to find out what was in that stack of symbolic paper, I came across an article in CNN Money. This article provides the following examples of deregulation:

 

Coal mining companies won’t be obligated to protect the nation’s streams from debris when extracting coal from mountain tops.

Firms that operate in hazardous industries, like electrical contractors and freight truck operators, face looser reporting requirements when their employees get hurt or sick on the job…

He’s halted a bid to address risks of bumpers on baby cribs that have been known to lead to infant deaths.

His administration has imposed an 18-month delay on the so-called fiduciary rule that would require brokers who manage retirement accounts to act in their consumer’s best interest rather than their own.

He’s postponed enforcement of a rule that would minimize 2.3 million American workers’ exposure to silica dust, a known contributor to lung cancer. He’s abandoned plans to streamline patient medical information into a one-page form to make it easier for consumers to understand how to use their prescription drugs safely. And he’s blocked efforts that would prohibit federal contractors from winning taxpayer-funded contracts if they violate basic labor and employment laws.

Here is where the yucky framing comes in. The focus of the article is about the economic impact of the deregulation. The last word:

“These policies have not yet fully gone into effect,” said Dan Goldbeck, a research analyst on regulatory policy for American Action Forum. “It is too early to judge the economic impact of this shift. It’s reasonable, however, to think that the magnitude of these changes — both in slowing down and rolling back regulatory burdens — will have a positive effect.”

Should we ensure that vulnerable populations in nursing homes receive basic standards or care? How about making sure that the stuff in cribs doesn’t kill the infant?

I don’t know, how much will we save if we don’t do that? Bleecchhh.

Yucky Framing, “Seriousness” and The Clinton Conundrum

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.

 

 

Yucky Framing: Health Tragedies as Market Opportunity

doctors-call Bloomberg is bullish about crowdfunding sites.  Soaring health care costs and the possibility of a new health act replacing the ACA means that there will likely be an increase in uninsured and underinsured which means more people than ever will be scrambling to find a way to pay medical bills. That means more and more people will be asking for support via sites like Go Fund Me.

“For more and more Americans, vying in a popularity contest for a limited supply of funds and sympathy may be the only way to pay the doctors and stay afloat,” writes Suzanne Woolley.

This turns health funding into a contest for who can craft the most sympathetic sob story, a modern, high-stakes Queen for a Day.

And that means that the crowdfunding sector, for which medical bills already make up a large percentage of their volume, is facing a boom.

“With enough volume, the business of helping people raise money for medical care has a lot of profit potential.”

 

Yucky Framing: The Majesty of Nature as a Market Variable

Grand-Canyon-National-Park-5

In his book “The Measure of a Mountain” Bruce Barcott wrote, “We know people by their stories: their history, their habits, their secrets, their triumphs and failures. We know them by what they do. We want to know mountains, too, but they’ve got no story. So we do the next best thing. We throw ourselves onto them and make the stories happen.”

What stories to we throw onto the mountain? What do we learn when we sit in their presence? Even if we have never heard the centuries of folk tales that they have inspired, when in the presence of a truly awesome display of nature, we can feel that they are there. In the presence of a mountain, we are made small, and that perspective touches the soul and forces us to think about the enormity of time. (The theme of what draws a person to the mountain was the inspiration of my first novel Angel.)

There is, of course, another way to talk about nature’s majesty. In market terms. I encountered this financial justification for the continued existence of national parks on The National Parks Traveler.

According to retired University of Montana economist Thomas Power, many people, when thinking about lands conservation, suffer from a kind of “rear-view mirror” effect. We look at what industries drove our economies in the past, but are often unaware of what is currently driving our economies, much less what may be important in the future. “Not only are there economic opportunities that come with protected lands, including the obvious tourism-related business enterprises, but land protection has other, less-direct economic benefits,” Power has written. “Wilderness and park designation creates quality-of-life attributes that attracts residents whose incomes do not depend on local employment in activities extracting commercial materials from the natural landscape but choose to move to an area to enjoy its amenity values.”

Blech! That is a market-speak way of saying “it matters because it is beautiful.”

Yucky Framing: If It Doesn’t Lead to Good Jobs, Feeding Children is a Waste of Money

In this clip Mick Mulvaney defends cutting programs that provide meals to low income children because he says they have not led to good jobs. He also defends cutting funding for Meals on Wheels because it has not demonstrated “results.”

I’m not clear on what “results” he is talking about with with Meals on Wheels. Do housebound older people get meals or not?  And why is it that Ebenezer Scrooge’s dialogue from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is sounding less and less a comic exaggeration by the day?

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

“Job Creators”

I have always hated the expression “job creators.” I hate the way it implies that there is a class of people who, almost as a form of charity, bestow employment (for which we should be extremely thankful) on us, the needy workers. It is just as true to say that employees are “business creators” (although no one ever does) because without their labor, the owner could not achieve his goals and run a successful enterprise. Employers are not little gods giving the gift of jobs, they hire people because those people have skills and talents that they need. It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

I also hate a certain imprecision in the “job” part of the expression. All jobs are not created equal. One of the big shifts in our economy, and indeed one that is most often cited as the cause of the anger and frustration of the people who elected Donald Trump, has been from manufacturing to service jobs. The factory makes the goods is in China now, but Wal Mart is hiring greeters. Because our culture has deemed service jobs less valuable than manufacturing jobs, the standard of living for workers has stagnated as the “job creators” continue to see gains. They can boast about the number of jobs they created and are rarely asked, “Do these jobs come with living wages?”

Beyond that, “jobs” it seems, are only created in the private sector and in certain parts of the private sector. Jobs related to the arts are not really jobs. You have to argue for arts by saying that having a theater in your city will drive business to nearby restaurants and hotels. (Real businesses) And you have to argue that arts education will make children good a mathematics so they can one day be computer programmers and engineers (Real jobs).

I was struck this morning when watching Fox News as a Trump voter talked about how excited he is that Trump is keeping his promise to create jobs in America. He cited the end of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the fact that Trump met with labor unions. When we talk about “jobs” we think of assembly lines, making things, real man’s work. Those kinds of jobs are indisputably “jobs.” And they are disappearing. According to Five Thirty Eight:

Here’s the problem: Whether or not those manufacturing jobs could have been saved, they aren’t coming back, at least not most of them. How do we know? Because in recent years, factories have been coming back, but the jobs haven’t. Because of rising wages in China, the need for shorter supply chains and other factors, a small but growing group of companies are shifting production back to the U.S. But the factories they build here are heavily automated, employing a small fraction of the workers they would have a generation ago.

Yet while he was discussing the potential future creation of U.S. manufacturing jobs, Trump was actively working to slash existing jobs. We tend not to frame them as jobs, rather as “spending” but government jobs are jobs. Trump apparently would like to see a 20% cut in federal workers. Meanwhile, he has instituted a hiring freeze and the House voted to make it easier to cut goverment employees’ salaries.

This is the opposite of “job creation” it is “job elimination.” We don’t really call it that. We call it, as Donald Trump did, “reducing the size of the federal bureaucracy.”Interestingly, none of the articles I found on the topic of the proposed 20% workforce cuts mentioned how many people would be unemployed by such a move. Can you imagine business reporters writing about the proposed closure of a factory and omitting how many jobs would be lost? And yet when the nation’s largest employer is talking about cutting its workforce by 20% the actual number of jobs is nowhere. It seems that the government employs 2.8 million people. (If you include the military it is about 4.4 million people) But as Trump has vowed not to include the military (those are real jobs) we’ll stick with the 2.8 million figure. That is 560,000 people who would be joining the unemployment lines if this plan actually became a reality.

It doesn’t seem as though putting that many people out of work would do a lot to give the administration good employment results, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts people who are working whether in “real jobs” or “fake jobs” in the arts and the public sector. That is assuming they continue to gather and report on employment.

On a personal level, I hope that the “federal bureaucracy” is not reduced to the point that you can’t get anyone on the phone to answer a question about processing a visa, or filing your claim with the VA.