Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bad transit funding frames

When you think of the word "bailout," what comes to mind?

If you're a real old salt, you might think of a leaky boat (or a good boat in a bad storm) that keeps taking on water. Bailing out is throwing the water out with a pail. And you'd want to know who was the jerk that took the boat out in the first place without properly sealing it.

You might also think of someone who's been arrested and is offered the opportunity to post bail. Bailing them out is going to the court with enough money to get them released. And you'd want to know who was the jerk that went and got arrested in the first place.

If you're thinking more of current events, you would probably think of the homeowners who bought houses with mortgages they couldn't afford to pay. Or you might think of all the banks, investment firms and insurance companies that wound up losing so much on defaulted mortgages that they couldn't afford to repay their debts or deposits. In that case, bailing out is when the government arranges for a loan to be forgiven or renegotiated, or simply pays it back on behalf of the debtor. And in that case you want to know who was the jerk that took out a loan in the first place without making sure they had enough money to pay it back.

The boat scenario, the jail scenario and the banking scenario are what the linguist Charles Fillmore calls frames, and what his colleague George Lakoff has used to explain why some political arguments succeed or fail regardless of whether they're logically sound, or even true. The boat bailout frame contains other concepts such as sea, oars, rain and tarp. The jail bailout frame contains concepts like bondsman, recognizance and court date. The financial bailout frame contains concepts like foreclosure, derivatives, the Fed and TARP.

They're different frames, but they have a lot in common, and the term bailout was first applied to the financial world as a metaphor to indicate that someone was coming to the rescue of someone else who was in trouble. Note that in all the cases they usually got themselves into the trouble, and the person bailing them out is not necessarily doing it out of kindness.

So now what do you think of when you think of an MTA bailout? You think "Okay, now who are the jerks that got themselves into this mess, and why do I have to come pull them out of it?" MTA rescue is almost as bad: you're thinking, "What, they need to be rescued again? What are they doing that they keep getting into these kinds of situations?"

In the typical bailout there is no external agent who's causing the trouble. The fault is the person who's in trouble. Similar with the kind of rescue being evoked here: it's not the innocent maiden being rescued from the dragon, it's those overconfident mountain climbers having to be rescued from the storm again.

Lakoff's argument is that frames bypass the logical parts of our brains and go straight to our emotions, so you have to be really careful to evoke the right ones. Using the word "bailout" or "rescue" in an article or blog post about a financial crisis is pretty much guaranteed to get a big chunk of the readership wondering whether they didn't bring it on themselves.

Of course, they didn't - not completely at least. Pataki was the first to cut the State's contribution to the MTA, and Giuliani cut the city contribution. That has continued under Bloomberg, Spitzer and Paterson - although to be fair, the legislature cut some of that money on its own. And when Bloomberg and later Paterson tried to toll the city's bridges to make up at least part of those cuts, the State Legislature voted against the plans. In this case, more than two-thirds of the shortfall is the documented fault of the legislature: they miscalculated how much tax revenue it would take to properly fund the MTA, and they refused to cut anything else from the budget, forcing Paterson to cut everything across the board. The MTA may be partly at fault, but in this case, the fault is mostly that of Shelly Silver and Pedro Espada.

This means that when people use words like "bailout" and "rescue package" to describe what's going on with the MTA, they're obscuring an important part of the story. No wonder the comments sections of the major papers are full of people who think that the MTA doesn't deserve the money. The frames lead them to that conclusion.

Now, it may be entirely innocent, that these reporters and bloggers are just repeating what they've heard from other sources, but it's still counterproductive. Anyone who repeats these words together is really not doing the MTA any favors.

If you want to do the right thing, use words that will portray the situation in a light that fits more with the reality, and point towards ways to properly fund the agency. Contribution suggests a shared endeavor for the good of all. So does paying their fair share. Investment implies that the money will probably pay off in the long run.


Ben K. said...

I know on SAS I often slip into the "bailout" pejorative as a kind of shorthand, but I definitely see the point. From now, it will be the MTA funding plan.

Scott said...

Lakoff has a book called, "Don't Think of an Elephant" that deals with framing arguments...essentially what he is trying to say is in political discourse, don't allow the other side to frame the argument. The estate tax debate is a very good example in that the conservatives wish to have it expressed as the "death tax". It wouldn't do much good to counter this argument head on because you are still talking about a tax you pay when you die. Conservatives win that one because they framed it in such a way that it is difficult to talk about without it being called the death tax.

I was thinking about a transit argument that could be framed in such a way as to ensure the success of a position and win the emotional argument as well as the logical argument, because often in politics (which transit is very tied up with) you have to win hearts first, and the mind will follow.

Good post and definitely something that should be on the minds of transit advocates.