A Response to Lakoff’s “The New Obama Narrative”

George Lakoff, cognitive scientist and guru of progressive political framing, threw down a challenge on the Truth Out website recently, and I think I’m going to take it up to him.

Lakoff analysed Obama’s recent State of the Union address, and observed that at last Obama had an overarching political narrative – improving America’s competitiveness. During the address, Obama pledged that his “administration will develop a proposal to merge, consolidate, and reorganize the federal government in a way that best services the goal of a more competitive America.” Notwithstanding the political/tactical benefits for Obama, Lakoff rightly points out the dangers of a competitive narrative for progressive politics. On the one hand, the task of competing in a harsh global economy justifies strong investment in education, health and infrastructure (that’s good), but where does the fight for labour rights and ecological sustainability fit with a competitive economy? If anyone has an answer feel free to share it.

Anyway, back to the challenge, Lakoff concluded with a question; what would a progressive narrative of the economy look like? I would suggest that an answer is to be found by flipping the competitive frame around 180 degrees. A progressive narrative of the economy would focus on co-operation and solidarity. Now folks, before you write me off for having one too many Pale Ales on a Tuesday night stay with me.

We’ve grown up with the myth that economic wealth comes from businesses competing with each other on the free market to sell their goods and services. That’s bull. We experience the reality of wealth creation every day even if we’ve been constantly trained to ignore it. Think about how many times you’ve been told at work that you need to be a team player – our wealth comes from us working together towards a common goal. Think about the amount of money you have today. Now imagine where you would be without the love and support of your parents, the benefits of a decent education, access to a quality healthcare system, or even the ability to travel any distance on the roads or public transport (not to mention all those other times you’ve relied on any sort of community or state support). How much of your own financial position depends on the cooperation of others?

Well someone a bit more knowledgeable about this stuff has had a stab calculating it. Nobel Prize winning economist, Herbet Simon, has had a go at calculating just how much of the wealth of a normal person in a Western country is down to individual effort and it’s only 10 per cent. That’s right; success is 90 per cent dependent on the work of others, 9.5% perspiration and 0.5% inspiration.

Speaking of inspiration, you might think sure co-operation is critical to getting most work done but competition adds that extra little creative zing. Haven’t corporations really driven the innovations that changed our lives? Like the internet (universities), satellite (the Commies), the GPS (US military), or the jet engine (the RAF)? Sure, many good people in corporations have come up with many interesting inventions but it’s not exactly the CEOs doing the inventing. Usually, its the skilled professionals undertaking solid research in the R & D departments co-operating and working together towards some shared goal.

Now you must think I’m really crazy – but let’s go back to the origins of the very word ‘economy’.  Apparently the word’s original meaning is not ‘the wisdom of some investment banker from Macquarie or Commsec’. Rather, it comes back from a series of Greek words relating to the management of a household. The term economy goes back to how a household manages to work together to earn a living – do you really think the parents or children of a household are better of competing with each other? Or that multiple households in the one village would be better of working together to get their crop in or competing with each other? Co-operation, trust and solidarity are the foundations for a truly prosperous society. Life, on the other hand, in a really competitive economy would probably be nasty, brutish and short.

Anyway, that’s my go at the beginnings of a progressive narrative on the economy. What do you think of the competition narrative?


3 thoughts on “A Response to Lakoff’s “The New Obama Narrative”

  1. i like the fact that u have a blog godfrey its ace.. inresponse to this article…
    “Co-operation, trust and solidarity are the foundations for a truly prosperous society. ” this i agree with.. first of all i think its pretty hard to comment on how the USA should manage their economy whilst being an Australian and not having ‘a lot’ of current knowledge about how Americans live, feel, think, and work… i for one would have absolutely no idea on this and wouldnt have the guts to make such statements about a country i dont live in…
    i personally very much ‘like’ the idea of competition and free markets but i also feel very strongly about the need for cooperation.. that said your comments are quite esoteric or ethical/political and dont take into consideration the things that an American gov wuld have to consider like economics, interest rates, foreign trade, home loans, the price of petrol, the unemployment rate, national debt etc.. As far as i know the US is in quite a fragile state atm in terms of economics and stability in history…
    i could go on and on.. but would prefer to discuss our country Godfrey .. and our economy and our exports and our laborforce and how our citizens are feeling about the increase in taxes and increase in interest rate s and mortgage costs and petrol costs and increase in elec costs and water costs and the flood levy (quite necessary)… alot of all this argument is tied in with each nations exports… would you prefer Australia didnt have such a strong and successful mining industry that has kept us afloat during the GEC? would you prefer we didnt mine Uranium?

    1. PS… i really think that when Australia and the rest of the world commits to a global carbon market (which is inevitable) EVERYONE will be SOOO suurprised at the AMOUNT ov money that will be thrown around in this market – it will be sooo much – that it will actually be too much too fast- it will honestly just be really fullon – it will booom and too many forests will be planted…- wot about the fires? pple around the world 3will realise just how fast the global market runs – its so much faster and more effective than democracy and governments and committees… The INTERNET is your example of this and mine….Chheersxox

  2. Why do unionists always labour rights and competition seen to be separate, unions would be better served to acknowledge that it will remain part of the fabric of the modern world and that whilst this world is not the utopian cooperative that they imagine, its not actually that bad and that there are plenty of good things that competition has generated, The human genome, the telephone, the aeroplane and many of the modern medicines we rely on today were all born out of a competitive process.
    As I said regardless of what you think about the competitive economy it’s a reality in the world we live and work in. The tricky thing about the competitive market is that people get left behind but maybe rather than trying to slow the bulk down to help the few maybe we should focus more on helping those behind to build innovate and compete help them to get to the shore swimming with the current rather than encourage them to swim against it and drown

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