Monday, October 15, 2012

The narrative on entitlements

I've been meaning to do a lot more posts on how things in politics (or anything) are framed and how that framing shapes discourses, opinions and policy. With the election in the headlines and debates going on, framing and the narrative the framing creates are more apparent and in full effect. I only watched a minute or so of the VP debate. But the one question I heard was a great example of framing and the narrative that creates around a policy. Glenn Greenwald has the details:

"Let's talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process.

"Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive?"

That social security is "going broke" – a core premise of her question – is, to put it as generously as possible, a claim that is dubious in the extreme. "Factually false" is more apt. This claim lies at the heart of the right-wing and neo-liberal quest to slash entitlement benefits for ordinary Americans – Ryan predictably responded by saying: "Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts." – but the claim is baseless.

The first few lines are the moderator's question. As Glenn says, the way she frames the issue is not true. But since it fits Ryan's ideology he goes along with the narrative that the media and DC politicians have created. Even Obama and some Democrats have gone along with this narrative that social security and medicare are "going broke" as a way to appear tough on the deficit.

Ezra Klein talks about how the "going broke" narrative plays into politicians' desired policy goal when it comes to social security, one those politicians like to tout as being courageous:

Of course, those who say we should raise the Social Security retirement age — either the age of eligibility or the age for full benefits — don’t get laughed at. It’s considered a very thoughtful, courageous effort to deal with our entitlement programs. People who mention it often make a joke of how brave they’re being. For instance, here’s New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) at an American Enterprise Institute event:

You are going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security! Whoa! I just said it and I am still standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpeting.

Christie is far from alone in having this policy preference. Obama put it on the table in negotiations with House Republicans. But most of what the public hears is people like Christie or Paul Ryan claiming that the country is going to go bankrupt if we don't fix social security. People don't know that the country won't actually go bankrupt or that there is a fix to the "problem" that won't hurt the most vulnerable.

The issue is framed in a way that the only alternative is the policy Ryan prefers, and foremost that there is a problem to begin with. Once the issued is framed that way a narrative arises in which the issue is only talked about in the way it has been framed. And by the time someone like Greenwald or Klein tries to talk about different policy preferences some people have already made up their mind. So it becomes very difficult to talk about the issue and get the best policy passed.

Here's more from Ezra on why this isn't a courageous policy preference yet why it's so popular with the media and DC politicians:

The people wandering around calling for a higher retirement age will never feel the bite of the policy. Think tankers and politicians and columnists don’t retire at age 62, or even age 65. They love their work, which mostly requires sitting down in air-conditioned rooms. They stick around pretty much until they’re about to die.

The courage it takes to call for a higher retirement age is the courage to say that other people who don’t have it as good as you do should be the ones to pay to shore up Social Security. It’s the same kind of courage as a poor person calling for higher taxes on the rich, or a sitting congressman calling for a war he’ll never have to fight in.
...
As it happens, lifting the payroll tax cap would also end up costing eminent think tankers and journalists and lobbyists and politicians a whole lot of money. Perhaps consequentially, it’s a rather less popular policy idea in this town. Many consider it an easy way out, even though it would be much harder on them. Courage and sacrifice for thee, but not for me.

That is how the issue should be framed. But it's increasingly hard to implement policy based on those facts the longer the "going broke" narrative goes on.

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