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?