Kevin Corcoran on the Importance of Framing
A regular commenter on this site, Kevin Corcoran, sent me the writeup below. I thought it was so good that I asked his permission to post it. He granted it. Here it is.
I was thinking the other day about how people prefer to frame issues, and how that can either clarify or distort our thinking. People can react very differently to statements or suggestions depending on how you frame them, so getting the framing right matters both rhetorically in making your case persuasive and intellectually in making your case honestly and accurately.
One common framing device that the left uses is to use “taking less” as the literal equivalent of “actively giving.” How common is it to hear, for example, a statement like “This tax plan will give billions of dollars to the top 1% and to giant corporations”? This is certainly phrased that way for rhetorical effect, to make the case against the hypothetical tax plan seem more persuasive. The government is going to give money to already wealthy people!? Who could support that? And in some scenarios, there’s even an element of truth. Corporate welfare is a real thing, and the government often does give large amounts of taxpayer money directly to wealthy corporations. That is something libertarians and leftists can jointly oppose.
But describing cases of sending someone a lower tax bill as the literal equivalent of cutting them a check is egregiously misleading. Am I tilting at a windmill, because obviously everyone knows the difference? No. At least one member of Congress does not. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was very vocal in opposing the building of a second Amazon HQ in her district, in part because of the tax breaks Amazon would have gotten. These were tax breaks, not direct subsidies or cash transfers. If Amazon had always existed there, it would have generated $30 billion in state and local taxes. But the government, as an incentive for Amazon to establish a new headquarters in her district, was offering to cut Amazon’s taxes by $3 billion out of the $30 billion. According to leftist rhetoric, this means New York would have engaged in the outrageous act of “giving” $3 billion to Amazon, one of the wealthiest companies in the world. When Amazon eventually decided not to locate there, AOC had this to say: “If we’re willing to give away $3 billion for this deal, we could invest those $3 billion in our district if we wanted to. We could hire out more teachers, we can fix our subways. We can put a lot of people to work for that money if we wanted to.”
But “that money” she’s talking about didn’t actually exist. She seemed to genuinely believe that by keeping the Amazon HQ out of her district and, therefore, not “giving” Amazon $3 billion, the state will now have an extra $3 billion available to provide all these services. But that’s not true. By keeping Amazon away, it will now have 27 billion fewer dollars to do all of these things. Achieving your goals requires an accurate understanding of how the world works, and by inaccurately framing “taking away less” as the literal equivalent of “actively giving,” leftists make it more difficult for themselves to achieve the goals they claim to seek.
Anyway, those are just some Monday morning musings. It’s back to work for me – this SQL code will not write itself, much to my chagrin.
Well said, Kevin. The AOC example drives home the point that framing can mislead even the framer.