There’s something strange in the water trough to the left of the swinging wooden doors of the Australian Political Debate Saloon. The public figureheads of the Australian Greens, Labor Party and Council of Trade Unions are all suddenly talking about ‘trickle down economics’ as they roll out their new economic agendas, blazing through the doors of social media platforms and the National Press Club, guns at the hip — pew pew pew.
As a unionist and once-active Greens member who joined the party in 2009 because of how shithouse the NSW Labor government had become, I’m heartened by Richard Di Natale, Bill Shorten and Sally McManus getting out there talking about the negative effects our current economic framework is having on people and communities, and then throwing around ideas of how to fix it. About bloody time. I’ll leave the debate of policy specifics to others, but the one unifying thing I can confidently say about all three is that they need to stop saying trickle down economics.
Problem 1: Relying on specialist terms and assumed knowledge
The starting point for this analysis was a phrase Di Natale used in a video released the day before his National Press Club. He said ‘…it’s time to step in and undo the damage that rampant trickle down economics has done to our community and our planet.’ I then did a linguistic analysis of the actual speech, called The Trickle Down Hoax and the Need for the Government to Step In.
The first thing you might think on hearing that title is: ‘What is trickle down economics and why is it a hoax?’ Di Natale’s speech doesn’t go there (neither do Shorten’s on McManus’) leaving us with the jargon. This kind of specialist language is often used to impress people — i.e. look how smart I am I know big words — but it’s not particularly useful for the transfer of information or building connections with people. Richard Dennis, Chief Economist at the Australia Institute, points out that economic jargon, which he terms ‘econobabble’, is often deliberately used to confuse people and present economic discussion as something beyond the general population.
Here’s a nutshell version of trickle down economics: cutting taxation and reducing regulation for corporations and the wealthy helps them make more money, and this is good for the whole of society because it grows the whole ‘pie’, and a slice of this goes to everybody else in the form of wages and stuff (i.e. eventually it trickles through the system to them). There are other terms people use to refer to the broad economic changes that occurred from the late 1970s globally: Reaganomics, neo-liberalism, economic rationalism, ultra-capitalism, just plain stupid, etc. Lots of people are also beginning to understand that the reality of this dominant political and economic framework is at complete odds with the way the political and social elite have been selling it to us: the economy would be stable, everyone would share in growing wealth, and individual choice would be at the centre of the system — the rise of anti-politics and general disillusionment with politics and politicians being a consequence of this in my opinion.
This should be heartening news for genuine progressive politicians and activists, but the way to getting the public to believe that you are on their side isn’t using terminology that only a narrow audience understands. It’s not like you see people standing at an ATM on the day their income support comes through waxing lyrical: ‘wouldn’t it be nice if more wealth trickled down?’
Problem 2: Reinforcing the opponent’s frame
It’s becoming reasonably common knowledge that the way in which a piece of information is presented to an audience affects how that piece of information is interpreted. In terms of metaphor framing, one of the most cited examples is a 2011 Stanford study which showed that when crime was framed as a beast (preying on a community, for example) people supported punitive enforcement measures; but when it was framed as a virus (e.g. infecting a community) people were more inclined to favour early intervention and social reform. That is: a beast is an opponent that you fight; a virus is an illness that you cure.
Therefore, progressives who want people to engage with their message and policies on economics should think carefully about what metaphor framework they use. Semantically, trickle down economics frames the economy as water. Framing the economy as a natural phenomenon is quite common — swimming against the economic tide… the ebbs and flows of the stock market… trickle down economics… It also fits squarely within the conservative agenda. Just like framing markets as magic or god-like, (the invisible hand), the economy-as-nature frame puts the economy outside of people’s control.
The conservative, authoritarian and hierarchically disposed have a general mindset that the majority should just let leaders get on with the job of running things. It’s a position driven by privilege and power. Everyone should just trust them (don’t you know how smart we are?). From the point of view of conservatives in power, ‘trickle down economics’ is a perfect phrase. And it’s exactly the opposite view of the economy that progressives should want.
We need to present the truth: the economy has been built by people to serve a particular purpose. In this way we encourage people to be open to the idea that the economy can then be modified to serve a different purpose. Framing the economy as a machine, like a car or other form of transport is much more in line with progressive values: …our economic system needs an overhaul… get it on the track where the profits are directed to people and communities… etc.
Continually repeating the phrase ‘trickle down economics’, regardless of the deeper economic analysis that you contextualise it with, merely reinforces the conservative economic framework.
Problem 3: We need a picture of hope
It is reasonably well recognised that hope and fear are two of the great motivators when it comes to changing people’s minds about something. Conservatives push the fear button all the time to try and ward off progressive and humanitarian reform: marriage equality, abortion law reform, people seeking asylum or reining in corporations, the list goes on. The Australian Labor Party and Australian Greens are not averse to using fear as a tactic either: for example through co-opting conservative policies to attract swing voters; and for a long time messaging around global warming bordered on the alarmist.
Hope is an equally powerful motivator. Hope of a better life for their children drives people to flee dangerous circumstances or push on through tough times; the belief that equality and justice can prevail has sustained thousands of activists: whether it’s for marriage equality, the right to vote, freedom from oppression, or a treaty to heal past wrongs.
Sophisticated communicators are starting to frame their campaigns based around a positive vision of what society could be like, extrapolating common values like fairness and equality onto a variety of issues. Progressive campaigners shifting from an anger / hope / action frame to a shared values / problem / solution / action one, because the latter works better when trying to reach new audiences.
Starting from these principles, one would expect Richard Di Natale to use the opening section of a National Press Club address to describe how Australian society would be if Greens policies were enacted; for example how the community and public sector would operate for the benefit of all if we succeeded in reining in the influence of big business in our democracy.
Instead of this, unfortunately, the opening 25 per cent of the speech sees Di Natale trying to establish the importance and credibility of the Greens: trying to positively frame recent election outcomes in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia; attempting to establish the Greens as setting the progressive policy agenda in this country.
The result is that instead of framing the speech around the potential for progressive economic reform, and positioning the Greens as willing to be part of making that happen, the overarching theme becomes: The Greens are relevant. Here’s how we we’re relevant. Now here’s another idea we’ve had (which is not actually our idea but we’ll say it is because it’s all about us).
The ideas might spark discussion, but there’s no emotional framework to inspire the disengaged to support them.
Under a similar microscope, the leaders of the Australian Labor Party and Council of Trade Unions fare little better. The beginning of Shorten’s January 2018 speech starts like a high school debate might, with a 1–2–3 checklist of what the rest of the speech will be about. McManus’ March 2017 speech goes straight for doom and gloom and what’s wrong with everything. As opposed to Shorten and Di Natale’s pitch for votes, McManus’ speech in general comes across as a device to ignite and galvanise the base behind her. In that regard, it’s reasonably effective, and the unionist in my Facebook echo chamber certainly got fired up, but at some point people are going to need to know what they’re fighting for, not just what they’re against.
Solution: Pay more attention to what you’re saying
It’s exciting that the Greens, Labor and the Australian union movement are attempting to present robust analysis of our economy and varying ideas about how to transition to a new one. At the beginning of this piece I framed political debate in Australia as the kind of cowboy gunfights we’re used to seeing in Spaghetti Westerns, where the purpose is to beat the other guy. Sadly that’s how it feels a lot of the time, and again it’s the kind of idiocy that has led to political disillusionment.
If we’re going to make changing the economy and political frameworks a reality, politicians are going to have to engage in mature public debate and approach change as a collaborative project.
Research is starting to show that a majority of people understand (no matter which way they vote) that corporations and the super-wealthy have too much power, and that they want good governments to transfer this power to people and communities. This sentiment has been core to social actions such as Occupy and the Indignados movement in Spain.
This collective readiness for change makes it more important than ever for the whole progressive movement to get smarter about the way we communicate. That doesn’t mean being driven by opinion polls or attempting to mislead voters through slick or truth-bending marketing campaigns. It means leaning into the power of truth and hope, getting out of our towers of privilege and speaking to people in a way they understand. It means speaking of the economy not as a force of nature, instead as a human construction that needs a fundamental renovation.
Viva la Renovation.