Economics and Morality: Paul Krugman’s Framing – Please note the many linked articles to this post. ~J

I have found that anything George Lakoff writes is worth reading. ~J

Published on Thursday, June 14, 2012
SOURCE: Common Dreams
by George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling

In his June 11, 2012 op-ed in the NY Times, Paul Krugman goes beyond economic analysis to bring up the morality and the conceptual framing that determines economic policy. He speaks of “the people the economy is supposed to serve” — “the unemployed,” and “workers”— and “the mentality that sees economic pain as somehow redeeming.”

Nobel laureate and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman.

Krugman is right to bring these matters up. Markets are not provided by nature. They are constructed — by laws, rules, and institutions. All of these have moral bases of one sort or another. Hence, all markets are moral, according to someone’s sense of morality. The only question is, Whose morality? In contemporary America, it is conservative versus progressive morality that governs forms of economic policy. The systems of morality behind economic policies need to be discussed.

Most Democrats, consciously or mostly unconsciously, use a moral view deriving from an idealized notion of nurturant parenting, a morality based on caring about their fellow citizens, and acting responsibly both for themselves and others with what President Obama has called “an ethic of excellence” — doing one’s best not just for oneself, but for one’s family, community, and country, and for the world. Government on this view has two moral missions: to protect and empower everyone equally.

The means is The Public, which provides infrastructure, public education, and regulations to maximize health, protection and justice, a sustainable environment, systems for information and transportation, and so forth. The Public is necessary for The Private, especially private enterprise, which relies on all of the above. The liberal market economy maximizes overall freedom by serving public needs: providing needed products at reasonable prices for reasonable profits, paying workers fairly and treating them well, and serving the communities to which they belong. In short, “the people the economy is supposed to serve” are ordinary citizens. This has been the basis of American democracy from the beginning.

“Quoting conservative language, even to argue against it, just strengthens conservatism in the brain of people who are morally complex. It is vital that they hear the progressive values of the traditional American moral system, the truth that The Public is necessary for The Private, the truth that our freedom depends on a robust Public, and that the economy is for all of us.”

Conservatives hold a different moral perspective, based on an idealized notion of a strict father family. In this model, the father is The Decider, who is in charge, knows right from wrong, and teaches children morality by punishing them painfully when they do wrong, so that they can become disciplined enough to do right and thrive in the market.  If they are not well-off, they are not sufficiently disciplined and so cannot be moral: they deserve their poverty. Applied to conservative politics, this yields a moral hierarchy with the wealthy, morally disciplined citizens deservedly on the top. 

Democracy is seen as providing liberty, the freedom to seek one’s self interest with minimal responsibility for the interests or well-being of others. It is laissez-faire liberty. Responsibility is personal, not social. People should be able to be their own strict fathers, Deciders on their own — the ideal of conservative populists, who are voting their morality not their economic interests.  Those who are needy are assumed to be weak and undisciplined and therefore morally lacking. The most moral people are the rich. The slogan, “Let the market decide,” sees the market itself as The Decider, the ultimate authority, where there should be no government power over it to regulate, tax, protect workers, and to impose fines in tort cases. Those with no money are undisciplined, not moral, and so should be punished. The poor can earn redemption only by suffering and thus, supposedly, getting an incentive to do better.

If you believe all of this, and if you see the world only from this perspective, then you cannot possibly perceive the deep economic truth that The Public is necessary for The Private, for a decent private life and private enterprise. The denial of this truth, and the desire to eliminate The Public altogether, can unfortunately come naturally and honestly via this moral perspective.

When Krugman speaks of those who have “the mentality that sees economic pain as somehow redeeming,” he is speaking of those who have ordinary conservative morality, the more than forty percent who voted for John McCain and who now support Mitt Romney — and Angela Merkel’s call for “austerity” in Germany. It is conservative moral thought that gives the word “austerity” a positive moral connotation.

Just as the authority of a strict father must always be maintained, so the highest value in this conservative moral system is the preservation, extension, and ultimate victory of the conservative moral system itself.  Preaching about the deficit is only a means to an end — eliminating funding for The Public and bringing us closer to permanent conservative domination.  From this perspective, the Paul Ryan budget makes sense — cut funding for The Public (the antithesis of conservative morality) and reward the rich (who are the best people from a conservative moral perspective).  Economic truth is irrelevant here.

Historically, American democracy is premised on the moral principle that citizens care about each other and that a robust Public is the way to act on that care.  Who is the market economy for? All of us. Equally. But with the sway of conservative morality, we are moving toward a 1 percent economy — for the bankers, the wealthy investors, and the super rich like the six members of the family that owns Walmart and has accumulated more wealth than the bottom 30 percent of Americans. Six people!

What is wrong with a 1 percent economy? As Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out in The Price of Inequality, the 1 percent economy eliminates opportunity for over a hundred million Americans. From the Land of Opportunity, we are in danger of becoming the Land of Opportunism.

If there is hope in our present situation, it lies with people who are morally complex, who are progressive on some issues and conservative on others — often called “moderates,” “independents,” and “swing voters.” They have both moral systems in their brains: when one is turned on, the other is turned off.  The one that is turned on more often gets strongest. Quoting conservative language, even to argue against it, just strengthens conservatism in the brain of people who are morally complex. It is vital that they hear the progressive values of the traditional American moral system, the truth that The Public is necessary for The Private, the truth that our freedom depends on a robust Public, and that the economy is for all of us.

We must talk about those truths — over and over, every day. To help, we have written The Little Blue Book. It can be ordered from barnesandnobleamazon, and itunes, and after June 26 at your local bookstore.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff is the author of forthcoming The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (co-authored with Elizabeth Wehling and available June 26, 2012). His previous books includeMoral PoliticsDon’t Think of an Elephant!Whose Freedom? and Thinking Points (with the Rockridge Institute staff). He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.

Elisabeth Wehling

Elisabeth Wehling is a political strategist and author working in the US and Europe. She is co-author (with George Lakoff) of the forthcoming The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic (Simon & Schuster June 2012).

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3 Responses to Economics and Morality: Paul Krugman’s Framing – Please note the many linked articles to this post. ~J

  1. Pingback: The Esperient-PTAV Blog | Economics and Morality: Paul Krugman’s Framing – Please note the many linked articles to this post. ~J

  2. BroAsa says:

    Lightworker, I totally agree and go you one better. I was raised and spent the early part of my adulthood as a Democrat fully embracing what was then the Democratic ideal (which is and was totally different from the ideals of today) and then became a Republican embracing their views until again the view departed from where they were then and now I am a true independent–no party.

    I see in this piece the simple spinning of facts to support a given point. This country was not ever founded on, as the writer puts it, needing The Public to take care of The Private. Historical facts state just the opposite. Jefferson, Adams, a large majority of the founders were in exactly the opposite camp. They advocated strongly enough that they tried their best to build into our Constitution language that limited the size, power, and reach of The Public. The Consitution itself states that The Public was only for providing for a common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty. Promoting the general welfare does fit into dictating what someone has to buy or not buy.

    I see the true facts exactly the opposite: Progressives/Liberals knows what’s right and if necessary will use force for their right to be the common right; Conservatives says that each person knows what is right or not right for them and the government simply needs to get the hell out of the way. The left whats strict regulation on all things to enforce what they know is right; while the right wants no regulation.

    The answer lies in neither view. The answer lies in respecting each person’s personal freedoms as long as it does no harm to another; each person acknowledging that they are also part of the whole (or One) willfully and gladly contributes to that Oneness based on their skills and talents; the One acknowledging the contribution of the each based on their skills and talents provides for the needs of the individual. Self guided, Self organized, and Self creating.

  3. Another Lightworker says:

    I think this view is a little simplistic IMHO: democrats = good = moral; republicans = bad = immoral. As a former democrat now independent, I have come to the conclusion that both democrats and republicans ARE the problem, since they the visible face of our dualistic two party corporate controlled system. We are constantly having to choose candidates according to this false paradigm pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other: help the poor/improve society vs punish the poor/enrich the individual, while behind the scenes we wage wars for profit. I have seen this pendulum swing back and forth for 30+ years now, and it’s a divide and conquer tool used by the cabal (see David Icke’s writings). It’s a game that has to stop if we are to move past this failed model.

    That’s why I think Ron Paul really nailed it when he showed that our political parties/military industrial complex/franctional reserve banking system are all in bed together, and we need to return to the constitution. The evidence of the global banking cartel controlling and operating through our government is so overwhelming and obvious now. I honestly don’t think the two establishment parties can be redeemed at this point, nor should they be. I’m hoping that they fall by the wayside as we take back control of our country and return to the constitution and common law as stated by Drake.

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