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Spending and Producing

Summary:
When a framing becomes ubiquitous you forget it’s a framing.  This is what popped into my head when I read a headline this morning about the infrastructure bills pending in Congress: Democrats Hit the Road to Sell Big Spending Bills as Republicans Attack.Yes, they are proposals to spend money; that’s one way to look at it.  But they are also proposals to produce infrastructure and social services—the spending is for something.  Opponents have every reason emphasize the spending side, as in the phrase “tax and spend liberals”.  If you were thinking of buying a new car and I wanted to dissuade you, I would probably make a big deal out of how much money you would be putting out.  If I were on the other side and wanted to convince you to do it, however, I would talk about what the car could

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When a framing becomes ubiquitous you forget it’s a framing.  This is what popped into my head when I read a headline this morning about the infrastructure bills pending in Congress: Democrats Hit the Road to Sell Big Spending Bills as Republicans Attack.

Yes, they are proposals to spend money; that’s one way to look at it.  But they are also proposals to produce infrastructure and social services—the spending is for something.  Opponents have every reason emphasize the spending side, as in the phrase “tax and spend liberals”.  If you were thinking of buying a new car and I wanted to dissuade you, I would probably make a big deal out of how much money you would be putting out.  If I were on the other side and wanted to convince you to do it, however, I would talk about what the car could do for you and what difference it would make in your life.  The negative side of any purchase is the outlay, the positive side what you get for it.

The negative framing of government programs in terms of their monetary cost has become so dominant even a center-left publication like the NY Times routinely adopts it, and I doubt few of their readers take notice.

For a positive framing, referring to them as “infrastructure bills” is a start, but even better would be phrasing that more concretely pictures what people would stand to gain from them.  You could headline them as programs to make America more resilient to climate change, modernize transportation and communication, expand renewable energy and reduce child poverty.  I’m not sure how that can be squeezed into a page layout constraint, although if we’re talking about digital pages the constraint is a lot more flexible.

There are many ways to do it, but the starting point is to recognize the default framing is one that echoes the arguments of opponents of public action.

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