Friday, November 1, 2013

Framing Questions (draft 1)

There are still some bits to fill in, and it needs to be tightened, but I'm tired. I will come back to it later:

I've been thinking a bit about how the media covers different issues. I often feel that the wrong questions are being asked in the stories. And of course, no one is going to get it right the first time. It would be foolish to expect everyone to find the right nuggets in a story immediately.

So first what is known.

In general people who identify as conservative believe that problems derive from personal responsibility and self-agency [cite poll numbers]. This can be seen in conservative attitudes towards food stamp programs. Generally speaking, conservatives believe strongly that if one tries hard enough they can overcome anything. So their approach to programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Unemployment (UI) Programs is to have strong work requirements reasoning that stringent standards will keep out fraudsters and help those that really deserve our help.

Liberal institutional attitudes. By contrast liberal (or if you prefer progressive) attitudes incorporate a much stronger institutional aspect into their opinions [poll numbers]. Liberal approaches to TANF and UI focus heavily on jobs training programs, education, and casting a wide benefits net on the assumption that these elements will counteract institutional inertia and empower people.

Of course the conservative counter is that this promotes laziness and fraud in the system. And the liberals counter that there is little or no evidence to support the claim of fraud in the system. And it goes on and on in circles. But we aren't here to focus on the dog chasing its tail. We are here to look at the bigger picture and how these factors can lead to missed opportunities at genuine improvement.

American attitudes toward personal agency. It should be noted that Americans generally skew toward personal responsibility and choice [poll numbers]. They believe, more than other countries, that hard work and a good attitude will be rewarded accordingly. Of course, this is obviously untrue; quantifying work in a capitalist society is highly subjective and molded by cultural attitudes. Further, economic mobility in the United States is the worst it has been since the 1920s, and is a paltry [position] of all developed nations. While Americans may believe in the American Dream, it is a harder to attain goal for the middle and lower classes to achieve than many realize. This complex interconnection of American attitudes and reality makes up the personal and institutional relationship.

Further these attitudes are modified by other group identifications. For example black people identify [poll numbers] with social mobility and in reality are afforded [numbers on actual mobility]. Evangelicals identify [poll numbers] with social mobility and in reality are afforded [numbers on actual mobility]. People making the median household income believe [poll numbers] and in reality are afforded [numbers on actual mobility].

And these lines draw themselves across a variety of issues, even non-economically tied issues. How much a person can individually make a difference is played out in most of our political battles as well. Which brings us to our third way of looking at a given issue. The political. The 24-hour news cycle often defaults to this perspective, looking at an issue as a game. Who is winning? What is the political fall-out? How does this affect poll numbers?

Often known as the horse race, this perspective looks at policymaking by its effect on political capital--how much political influence a given decision will cost or gain. In this purely transactional manner, people are allowed to not take sides and still give analysis on a given issue. Opinion polls are abundant and conducted often while deeper analysis--such as adverse economic or social impacts studies--are fewer and further between. And often politicians are very limited by their political capital.

Ted Cruz, a freshman senator with little respect on the hill, was able to leverage his stand against Obamacare to get media attention, improved (if temporarily) poll numbers, and a seat at the negotiating table. He is now considered a conservative thought leader whereas before he took a back seat to Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and even Michelle Bachmann. While there is no doubt in my mind that he cares deeply about stopping the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he definitely considered and used the political implications in his favor. His tactics improved his political standing.

Three ways to look at a problem. Now we have observed the three ways that a given issue can be looked at: institutional, personal, and political. All issues need to be looked at with all three aspects, but by targeting only one then radically different outcomes can occur. Let's take a look in greater depth at what characterizes the three parts.

Political. A political problem is one where the lines are drawn along ideological grounds. Be it the Tea Party versus the Conservative Establishment, or the more traditional GOP v Democratic split, a political issue is often approached in terms of popularity. Does it have enough votes? What does public opinion say? Inherent in this structure is the win/lose dynamic. Someone wins, and someone loses. Rarely, this is portrayed from the compromise, where the negotiators triumph by making everyone win (and lose a little). Even more rarely this is portrayed from the collaborative aspect, where everyone is a winner. This is the 'inside the beltway' perspective. It's about issues like swing-voters, the dwindling white majority, and their adverse impacts to a particular political view's strength. In its purest form it is democracy at its core. The popular one wins, there are no barriers, and all men are created equal.

Institutional. An institutional problem is one that persists regardless of politics. These are problems that continue whether the leading regime is democrat or republican, whether the leaders are charismatic or duds. Fundamentally, institutions are necessary. They maintain order and stability in a disordered and uncertain world. But sometimes institutions cause disproportionate harms to their benefits. The racist policies of the FHA after World War II is an excellent example. Institutional problems tend to have one winner or one loser with 'the rest' being generally unaffected. Institutions are interesting because they become invisible and monolithic. Institutional barriers give rise to terms like 'the man', 'Washington Establishment', and 'Wall Street'. No single individual or specific interest controls the institution yet an inequality or injustice persists despite the efforts from actors within and without. Some typical institutional questions: how do regulations affect the ability of people to start new businesses, how does race affect social mobility, what is preventing a cohesive natural resources management policy? These kinds of questions generally ask for big changes, changes that aren't typically available via democratic or individual means. The people with the power to make the changes generally want to preserve the status quo, making institutional change slow and full of inertia.

Personal. A personal problem is one created and manipulated by an individual or small identifiable group that share a causal factor. These are typically moral failings: stealing, lying, cheating, manipulating, incompetence, and general selfishness. A typical example is a politician taking kick-backs for a project. Often, moral failings unrelated to a person's job can sink their political careers (pretty much all of them are extramarital affairs). Corruption relating to the job is less common but more drastic. Not only is the individual in question affected, but anything in their purview is as well. This is the stuff of scandals typically. There is an identifiable wrong, an identifiable agent, and an identifiable punishment. Personal problems are the ones that get ratings: with interesting characters, intrigue, victims, and deception. The typical solution is to neuter or remove the person in power. It's important to note that the personal need not be a major moral failing, it could simply be an ideological adherence and failure to change course in the face of countervailing evidence. In that sense we all have our personal failings, the question becomes: when does that adversely impact our work and others around us? Rarely is a personal problem not part of a greater institutional or political problem.

And so it goes for most problems. What may start as one type of problem may end with all three bases being covered. This shouldn't be surprising as the barriers are permeable and influence each other. As an example take the recent government shutdown. About 40 Tea Party Republicans were dissatisfied by ACA's implementation. To voice this dissatisfaction they masterminded a plan that would cause the Federal Government to shut down unless their demand to defund ACA was approved. For 15 days the two political parties worked to restore the government while dealing with holdouts who refused to relent on their individual votes.

In many complex ways individuals, institutions, and politics worked in a give and take to shape the situation that occurred. For years, Democrats had largely yielded to similar Republican tactics. The GOP had been de-incentivized toward negotiation since a wave of ideological purity--spurred by the disappointments of the Bush administration and resounding defeat in the 2008 election. Ambitious young politicians, eager to make radical changes and follow through on campaign promises, had a strong incentive to stick to their strategy. These all culminated in a showdown situation with the individuals making decisions within the narrow spectrum of choices presented by their political and institutional affiliations.

The Argument

People have some free choice. There is no doubt that we can make our own choices. But…

Institutions are invisible decision makers. We are limited by the actions of others as well as the institutional constraints built around us. It's very difficult to understand this on a decision to decision basis. There is a great deal of literature that explains the limits that institutions can put on us.

Political calculus is a limited tool. While we may want to believe that poll numbers and political capital are the only things that motivate people, this is inherently limited to the partisan yes/no spectrum. This limits complex analysis.

There is a "right" set of questions. Obviously that's a simplification. The job of an informed citizen is to decide: what interests are involved, how do the interests characterize the main perspective of the issue (political, institutional, or personal), how do the other perspectives play in, how do the different interests account for differences in perception, how does the available evidence support each position. These sorts of questions are the check on the other questions. If other questions or framings do not align with the issue, then they require adjustment.

Wikipedia list of Government scandals