How to talk about Economics: A guide for Changing the Story


Its seems they’ve found that it’s better to talk about economics by not talking about economics.


Well isn’t that why we are told to write “stories” when proposing technical fixes in our IT jobs?

Because when people make decisions, they often want to visualise what will happen i think.

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Pretty much. I take issue with the notion that it’s anything new though. Lakoff said something similar in Don’t Think of an Elephant.

Using a term, even in a negative sense, brings to front-of-mind the associated narrative. In this case, economics is a battlefield that Conservatives have made their own. Mentioning it leaves us fighting on their turf. So divert the conversation into channels that we’re more likely to win.

Frank Luntz discovered the principle, long before Lakoff. The strategy papers that Luntz prepared for the Republicans typically included sections labeled “Words that work”, or something similar. The same idea can be seen at work in the OP.

Words matter. We need to get better at finding which words work best to counter the Conservative narrative. At present, we too often make the mistake of repeating their words, which puts us on the back foot.

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Their message is about reaching a socially progressive endpoint. They believe you can sidestep economic discussion by reframing high taxing government as a tool for social good, and politely ‘reminding’ everyone that it is natural to be a collectivist. We can also reframe the message as well. You can be both socially progressive and economically progressive, but to do this the frame has to be about empowering individuals and cleaning up the marketplace distortions that have favoured massive corporations at the expense of mums and dads.


Reading through the posted document and brief discussion that followed, left me with a kind of vague but deep seated feeling of disgust, but it was more a gut feel than anything more rational, so I didn’t try to express it at the time, limiting myself instead to just pointing out the most obvious contradiction, being the suggestion to speak about economics by not speaking about economics at all.

@mofosyne pointed out that this is how we discuss technical issues to people outside of the IT profession, and he’s right to an extent. We dumb it down, or express things in terms of the external user experience of a system, such that they can meaningfully engage in the discussion, but then … we go away and reinterpret their input in terms of our own preferred model of the system, and they get no say in that. Probably one of the key insights I have gained through decades in software architect positions, is paraphrased as “Architecture is Politics”. The way a system works and even the ways in which is CAN work without total reinvention, are defined by its structure.

The authors of this document are recommending that we tell people to stop talking about the structure. “Don’t look behind the curtain.” Just talk about the nice outcomes you’d like to see, and let us worry about what’s behind the curtain, and my answer is “No.”. There is no politician and no political party in this country that comes anywhere near the level of trust that would be required for me to let that happen.

@Michael reinforced that perspective:

He’s saying that the ends justify the means. Re-frame the discussion by talking about the social good, and avoid talking about what it will cost and who is going to pay that cost, all the while glossing over the fact that they are asking for the political power and use of government monopoly over violence, to impose the structure that they don’t want to talk about. It’s “bait and switch”, the oldest con job in the world…

It is not “natural to be a collectivist”. That’s just bollocks…
We are a social species, and have accumulated many adaptions to assist us to collaborate. We are far more powerful in groups than as individuals, but that’s not innate and it’s not without cost or tension. We collaborate through endlessly complex game-theoretical structures of trust. We all endlessly judge the trustworthiness of each other via these structures of cooperation that bind us together, unless we find those structures wanting, and then we bail out.

So part of the structure of cooperation they want to change but don’t want to talk about is “corporations”.
The corporations that are in fact major edifices of trust that those same “mums and dads” depend on for their jobs, their education, their food, and just about everything that makes modern life so damned comfortable that we can sit back and pontificate this stuff at a distance, with full bellies and a nice rum and Redbull in the other hand, but, hey, lets not talk about how that structure works. Just trust us to go muck with them.

I’m all for raising the bar for everyone.
Equality of opportunity - Yay!
Give everyone a fair go.

But this thing? No way, not ever.
The whole think strikes me as a prelude to major authoritarian bullshit.
They’re hooking you in by your compassion, to gain control over the very structures that bind us together, but refusing to talk about those structures and their intentions towards them.


Your perspective is far darker and more conspiratorial than mine. Reading a little Lakoff might lighten your mood.

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Lakoff talks about the technique, but seems to skip over whether it’s actually a good idea.
The political right does this stuff too, and I feel like shaking people and telling them to wake the fuck up.

Naomi Klein wrote a fairly shocking expose of how this approach is used more blatantly in:

Basically, wait until people feel unsettled or shocked enough by some bad event, and then introduce legislation that you know they wouldn’t usually accept. When contemplating bad news, people become more compliant. It’s a biological thing. They prepare for change, as it may be necessary to alleviate the problem, but the trick is that it doesn’t actually matter whether it alleviates the problem at all. They will be more receptive regardless.

Governments do this routinely now. Want to introduce more police powers? Pre-write the legislation, then wait for a large public criminal news day, then introduce it to parliament. We’ve seen this happen so many times here in Australia. It’s the same technique, and it’s a small step from there to generating the bad news yourself.

IMHO, we’re better of with a well educated and informed populace that sees this stuff coming and calls BS, rather than trying to engage in the same tricks ourselves…


IMHO, effective communication is generally “a good idea”.

They’ve been doing it for generations. That’s how they got so far ahead.

What you see as “tricks”, I regard as effective communication techniques. Looks like we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

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Effective communication leaves both parties more informed.
These techniques are about one side deliberately arranging that the other side remains uninformed.

It’s dishonest, so yeah, not going to agree.

EDIT: Actually, it’s worse than dishonest. It’s manipulative and divisive
Have you noticed how divisive politics has become after a few decades of escalation of this type of politics?


Being careful with wording is wise. Issues are often best approached from the side. I’ll leave the frontal assault technique to you.

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Well, at least you’re consistent.


@AndrewDowning, Thankyou for your reply.

Actually, I did not reinforce their position. I do not support their social position. However, in their means, I do see the merit. As @davidb states in his comments, re-framing is a discussion tool for constructing an argument in terms you’d prefer to use, and it is useful and legitimate. For the record I am libertarian.

Yes. I agree with you. Again, I was stating the social progressivist position, as presented in the guide. I actually think they are wrong in their economic opinions. I abhor collectivism.

I think there are governance issues with corporations, but not the same issues as the socialist, and not what you are talking about either. Corporations are in themselves centralised powers. I object to any centralised power. Corporations, in my opinion, reduce the nett economic opportunities. Massive corporations squeeze other players out of the marketplace killing countless jobs for every one they create, and make self-reinforcing monopolies that lock ut competition. I think Thomas Pickety “Capital” is worth a read on this, as is Scott Galloway “The Four”.

If you want my solution for fixing the economy and empowering people at the same time. I’d put a one percent tax on land, and the same on the market capitalisation of listed companies payable by the company. This should be used to fund Minimum Basic Income, as per Rutger Bregman “Utopia for Realists”, To build on it, I’d then move the whole scheme in to a blockchain (or other distributed ledger) to keep the money out of the hands of government.

Yes. Social progressivism without economic progressivity, in my opinion, stands to much risk of becoming to heavy in government and descending to communism. Utopian dreams can only become reality if you strive to go the whole way.

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Woohoo! Now we’re talking.

Another solution is to just move the whole economy to blockchain, and include a small % inflation as an alternative to tax. No more income tax. No more sales tax. No more tax returns. No need for economic surveillance. Distributed economic models designed to maximise opportunity by preventing monopolisation of business logistics and payment channels, no combined debt/money-supply based boom/recession cycles, etc etc etc. and we still get money for the social programmes that are required.

We’re a little ways off from realistically being able to implement that, but perhaps closer than many people think.
I watched a video this morning about an interview with IBM’s head of blockchain development. He was reported to have said that the big 1st world central banks were a lot further ahead in their blockchain developments than the commercial banks. As soon as one issues their currency as a blockchain token, there will be a rush to compete by the others, because there will be a first mover advantage - people/businesses will want to trade in/out of stable government backed tokens in global 24/7 exchanges.

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One step at a time. And an important key to avoiding authoritarianism, is to educate everyone along the way.


Getting back on topic (How to talk about Economics); listening to debate about the budget, I’m struck by the slanted terminology. Even the Opposition uses terms like “tax relief”. It’s as if paying a fair share of the cost of running the nation is some unbearable burden.

Is that a good message to be sending? What term could be used in place of “tax relief”?

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Well, 10% of the working population pays over 50% of the income tax. Good luck convincing them it’s not a burden or their “fair share”.


If true, is that unfair?

Residing in a nation, the citizen enters into a social contract. Taxation is part of that contract. Any citizen who dislikes the terms of the contract is free to find a place with more agreeable terms.


So, True, but is it fair?
Harder to say.
They’re not only paying a disproportionately large chunk of the tax, it’s also a disproportionately larger percentage of their income. If you account for benefits gained, as in return for tax paid, then the only people paying a net positive tax are those earning over 200k. Basically, they pay for everyone that isn’t paying their own way.

That’s ok, but you probably shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds you.

This is true, and they do, and the people that leave are amongst the most competent. Australia incurs the cost to raise and educate them, and then they go.
I’ve personally watched numerous colleagues relocate to the US with Amazon or other big US companies. These companies do recruitment road trips across Australia, just scooping up the best talent they can dislodge.


Are they though? Is it though?

From the article:

The progressive nature of income taxation in Australia plays a very significant role in altering the distribution of disposable income (after-tax) and provides Australia with a more equal distribution of disposable income.

Taxes are the dues we pay for living in a civilised society. In this society, taxation is scaled according to capacity to pay. Any who want to freeload are free to do so elsewhere.

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