Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Justin Trudeau & The Ibbitson Question: Lessons from George Lakoff

John Ibbitson questions whether Canadians will follow the values that Justin Trudeau represents, and concludes that there is much mushiness which bodes ill for the Liberal Party under the younger Trudeau:
The Ibbitson Question

Both political strategist Warren Kinsella (Fight the Right) and former journalist Paul Adams (Power Trap) have new books exploring what is wrong with the left and how to fix it. Both identify the core weakness of progressives in Canada: They cannot describe their values.

Everyone knows what Conservative values are: promoting self-reliance; getting government out of your face; keeping taxes low and finances sound; encouraging business growth; going after criminals, relentlessly.

The Harper government makes sure that every policy, every action, every word speaks to and reinforces those values, which the party shares with a large and loyal base. “The Conservatives have developed a core constituency with broadly shared values that distinguishes it from all of the opposition parties,” Mr. Adams writes.

But what do progressives value? Protecting the environment? Helping struggling families? What does that mean? How much would it cost? And what are the chances it would work?

Lessons from Lakoff:

Fear not, Liberals and liberals.

This is not new territory to be explored; it is much-tilled farmland, with diligent tilling over many years by sage men and women.

Among the most incisive tillers of this political space is George Lakoff,  author of Don’t Think of an Elephant. His analyses of the value clash between the rightwing conservatives (Republicans) and left wing progressives (Democrats) in the US is of value when trying to answer Ibbitson’s question: Are the “values” of Justin Trudeau consistent with the “values” of the majority of Canadians?

The Two Families:

We had out Two Solitudes; America has its Two Families.

The Lakoff analysis of the fundamental values of the conservatives and progressives is a good one. This post is a good start in understanding the differences between these two world views.

Untellable Truths and Underlying Values:

Lakoff’s analysis of the way that conservatives in the US have over the years worked to frame the values debate in ways that favour them and push the progressives (liberals) out to the outer edges of public discourse is very well represented by his list of Untellable Truths.
The Trudeau Values?

This post summarizes his Untellable Truths.

The Untellable Truths and the Progressive Values in detail:

Lakoff’s own words are worth considering in detail in order to answer The Ibbitson Question, and can be found here:

The conservative message machine has so dominated political discourse that they have changed the meaning of words and made some truths untellable by political leaders in present discourse. It takes a major communication effort to change that.

Here are just a few examples of presently untellable truths:

There is a Principle of Conservation of Government: If conservatives succeed in cutting government by the people for the public good, our lives will still be governed, but now by corporations. We will have government by corporations for corporate profit. It will not be a kind government. It will be a cruel government, a government of foreclosures, outsourcing, union busting, outrageous payments for every little thing, and pension eliminations.

The moral missions of government include the protection and empowerment of citizens. Protection includes health care, social security, safe food, consumer protection, environmental protection, job protection, etc. Empowerment is what makes a decent life possible - roads and infrastructure, communication and energy systems, education, etc. No business can function without them. This has not been discussed adequately. Government serving those moral missions is what makes freedom, fairness, and prosperity possible. Conservatives do not believe in those moral missions of government, and when in power, they subvert the ability of government to carry out those moral missions.

The moral missions of government impose a distinction between necessities and services. Government has a moral mission to provide necessities: Adequate food, water, housing, transportation, education, infrastructure (roads and bridges, sewers, public buildings), medical care, care for elders, the disabled, environmental protection, food safety, clean air, and so on. Necessities should never be subordinated to private profit. The public should never be put at the mercy of private profit. Public funds for necessities should never be diverted to private profit.

• Services are very different; they start where necessities end. Private service industries exist to provide services -- car rentals, parking lots, hair salons, gardening, painting, plumbing, fast food, auto repair, clothes cleaning, and so on. It is time to stop speaking of government "services" and speak instead of government providing necessities. Similarly, "spending" does not suggest providing necessities. "Spending" suggests services that could just as well be eliminated or provided by private industry. Economists should drop the term "spending" when discussing necessities.

The market is supposed to be "efficient" at distributing goods and services, and sometimes, with appropriate competition, it is. But the market is most often inefficient at proving necessities, because every dollar that goes to profit is a dollar that does not go to necessities. Health care is a perfect example.

Public servant pensions have been earned. Public servants have taken lower salaries in return for better benefits later in life. They have earned those pensions through years of hard work at low salaries. Pensions were ways for both corporations and governments to pay lower salaries. Responsible institutions, public and private, took the money saved by committing to pensions and invested it so that the money would be there later. Those corporation and governments that took the money and ran are now going broke. Those institutions (both companies and governments) are now blaming the unions who negotiated deferred earnings in the form of pensions or benefits for the lack of money to pay pensions. But the institutions themselves (e.g., general motors) are to blame for not putting those deferred salary payments aside and investing them safely.

Education is a public good, not a private good. It benefits all of us to live in a country with educated people. It benefits corporations to have educated employees. It benefits democracy to have educated citizens. But conservatives are only considering education as a means to make money and hence as a private good. This leads them to eliminate the public funding of education, which is a major disaster for all of us, not just those who will either be denied an education or who will be forced into unconscionable debt.

Huge discrepancies in wealth are a danger to democracy and a cause for major public alarm. The enormous accumulation of wealth at the top of American society means unfair access to scarce resources, a restriction on access to necessities for many, and a grossly unfair distribution of power -- power over the media and political power.

Tax "cuts," "breaks," and "loopholes" sound good (wouldn't you like one?) even for super-wealthy individuals and corporations. What they really mean is that money is being transferred from poorer people to richer people: The poor and middle are giving money to the rich! Why? Money that would otherwise go to their necessities: food, education, health, housing, safety, and so on is instead going into the pockets of super-wealthy people who don't need it.

Markets in a democracy have a fundamentally moral as well as economic function. Working people who produce goods and services are necessary for businesses and should be paid in line with profits and productivity. Salary scales in private industry are a matter of public, not just private concern. Middle-class salaries have not gone up in 30 years, while the income of the top 1 percent has zoomed upward astronomically. This is a moral issue.

Carbon-based fuels -- oil, coal, natural gas -- are deadly. They bring death to people and animals and destruction to nature. We are not paying for their true cost because they are being subsidized: tens of billions of dollars for naval protection of tankers, hundreds of billions for oil leases, hundreds of billions in destruction of nature, as in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska coast. Death comes from the poisoning of air and water through pollution and natural gas frakking. And global warming pollution destroys nature itself -- the ice cap, the creation of violent storms, floods, deserts, the blowing up of hilltops. The salesmen of death -- the oil and coal companies -- are profiting hugely from our payouts to them via subsidies and high prices. And with the money ordinary citizens are giving to them in subsidies, they are corrupting the political process, influencing political leaders not to deal with global warming -- our greatest threat. We are dependent on them for energy, to a large extent because they have politically blocked the development of alternatives for decades.

What is called "school failure" is actually a failure of citizens to pay for and do what is needed for excellent schools: early childhood education, better training and pay for teachers, a culture of learning in place a culture of entertainment, a poverty-free economy.

Taxpayers pay for business perks. Because business can deduct the costs of doing business, taxpayers wind up paying a significant percentage of business write-offs -- extravagant offices, business cars and jets, first-class and business-class flights, meetings at expensive lodges and spas, and so on. Businesses regularly rip off taxpayers through tax deductions.

The economic crisis and the ecological crisis are the same crisis. It has been caused by short-term greed. Thomas Friedman has described it well. The causes of both are the same: Underestimation of risk. Privatization of profit. Socialization of Loss. But that truth lies outside of public discourse.

Low-paid immigrant workers make the lifestyles of the middle and upper classes possible. Those workers deserve gratitude -- as well as health care, education for their kids, and decent housing.

Notice that it takes a paragraph to tell each of these truths. Each paragraph creates a frame required for the truth to be told. Words are defined in terms of such conceptual frames. Without the frames in common understanding, there are presently no simple commonplace words to express the frames. Such words have to be invented and will only come into common use when these presently untellable truths become commonplace truths.

So, the path to answering The Ibbitson Question is highlighted for us by an elephant, and a man who knows not to speak of the elephants.

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