Friday, May 25, 2007


"Framing" an Argument

My friends H, M, R, and S argue with me and each other about political, ecnomic, and social matters. Often S and I are on one side and H, M, and R are on the other side. Sometimes the division is more complicated. However, I classify H, M, and R, according to their expressed opinions, as "conservatives." S and I are the "liberals" or "anti-conservatives." S and I occasionally disagree. R tends to be more libertarian and less religious than H and M. For example, R favors funding for any and all stem cell research, including federal funding. H and M oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. In fact, they would prefer that embryos not be used for research at all.

In a recent exchange, R asserted that "liberal elites" do not trust the public to vote for or choose programs or policies that these "elites" favor. For example, "liberal elites" oppose drilling for oil in the ANWR in Alaska, while the people of Alaska are very much in favor of the drilling. The "liberal elites" do not trust the public.

My first response to this rant was to declare my support of local democracy. I argued that both local government units and the federal government can make mistakes, but that local units are more flexible and can recognize and correct mistakes quicker than the federal government can. I can go on (although I didn't in my e-mail to R, H, M, and S) to cite the federal government's long-running "war" on drugs as an example of a mistake that the feceral government is slow to recognize and correct. Local governments, for example the people of California, recognize that the inclusion of marijuana or hemp or cannabis in the list of dangerous drugs that ought not to be available to the public is a mistake. Even if the federal government won't recognize it, local voters know that the "legal" drug ethanol, the active ingredient in whisky and brandy and wine, is more "dangerous" than the "illegal" drug that is the active ingredient of marijuana.

But getting back to the emotional term "liberal elite," I now understand that the phrase is used simply to "frame" the argument. It is a way of showing scorn and contempt for a particular point of view without having to justify the opposition to it. I myself am opposed to drilling for oil in ANWR. My argument is that any oil discovered there (I concede that there is probably a lot of oil there) isn't going to affect the price of oil today, nor for several years. It will take that long to build the equipment to extract the oil and transport it to an all-weather port, such as Valdez. I believe that the money spent to drill and exploit the oil field there would be better spent developing and building plants that use new, renewable, and non-polluting sources of energy. My view is dismissed by my conservative friends as simply "elitist."

They do have an argument. After implying that I am a contemptible "liberal elitist," R goes on to point out that even though the oil from ANWR won't be available for several years, we in the United States will continue to use petroleum for fuel. When the oil from ANWR does come on line, it will represent oil that we no longer have to buy from sources in Arabia, Iran, Africa, and South America. The money that would have gone to the sheiks and emirs and ayatollahs and crazy South American leaders would instead stay within the United States. That is a valid argument. However, R and M go on to argue that the saved money would be spent in the United States in such a manner as to create 700,000 new jobs. That part of the argument I dismiss as being an unprovable, highly optimistic prediction. Whether the oil comes from ANWR or Iraq or Nigeria or Iran, the money to pay for it will come from Americans who buy gasoline for their cars and fuel oil for their furnaces and from American industries who directly or indirectly use petroleum to generate the power needed to produce their products. In one case the money will go to the sheiks and emirs and ayatollahs. In the other case, it will go to the stockholders of American Big Oil (Exxon-Mobile, Union, etc.). I have asked my conservative friends to explain to slow-witted me how the money that goes to American Big Oil is going to create any more jobs than the money that goes to the emirs and their ilk.

The argument "money-at-home = jobs" seems to me to be a variant of supply-side economics. Make it and people will buy. Build it and people will use it. My belief is that the decision of whether to start a new enterprise starts with the question of whether there is a market for a particular service or product. One has to prove that a potential market exists before a prudent investor will be willing to risk some of his money in the enterprise. One doesn't start the enterprise and then hope that customers will materialize.

My friend M argued that the extra money would be in American pockets, not in the pockets of the emirs, etc. It takes money to buy the services and products of a new enterprise. With this extra money, there would be extra demand, etc. I will let you, the reader of this blog, meditate for a while on this argument and decide for yourself whether it makes any sense.

It has been discussed elsewhere that conservatives have been more adept at using framing to force a desired conclusion to a debate or argument than liberals. I don't expect liberals to improve their "framing" skills. However, they must learn to recognize a frame when they see it and call it by its name. Terms like "liberal elite," "tax-and-spend Democrats," and "soft on crime" are well-worn frames that have had some influence on elections. The last liberal that I can recall that used frames effectively to counter his conservative opponents was Franklin Roosevelt. "Economic Royalist" was an effective frame in his day. We liberals need a man like FDR today.

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