David Brooks and the Inequality Problem

In a recent opinion article, David Brooks brilliantly untangled the issues in the widespread discussion of inequality, arguing that much of the debate misses the point. The terminology and research are not nearly as well understood as Brooks assumes. This is a very important issue for the voting public. Yet a great deal of basic clarity is missing around two very important issues in the article. Both the “research” and the terminology of “framing” are profoundly open to widespread misunderstanding and disagreement.

First of all, the underlying orientation of Brooks’ thinking is toward the “framing” of the issue. Business people use the language of “framing” regularly, but when you get down to what’s meant by it and its implications, it’s also widely misunderstood. The key to framing, which Brooks does not explain, is this: the way you frame a problem determines the solution to the problem. Furthermore, it’s important to understand how framing is used as well as it strengths and weaknesses.

What’s a frame?
Most people intuitively know something about frames. They actually refer to frames when they talk about “thinking outside the box,” or “it’s all in how you look at it.” We also experience frames when we meet people who just seem to immediately understand us or with whom we just “click.”

A frame is a mental structure, a perspective, or a way of looking at things. The best way to understand them is to think of looking out your window. What we see out a window is always limited by the frame. If I look out my study window, I can see grass-covered snow, the apartment parking lot, the edge of Walmart’s parking lot and then straight ahead trees and a large park-like area that has a long pet hospital fronting on the street beyond. If I want to see the strip mall, the Radio Shack, liquor store and my coffee shop, I’ve got to go and look through a window frame in my neighbor’s apartment. Those two illustrations reveal the strengths and weaknesses of frames.

Strengths and weakness
Russo and Schoemaker’s Winning Decisions addresses the issue thoroughly. What makes frames useful is that they simplify and guide our understanding of a complex reality. In a world where we are bombarded daily with far more information than we could ever hope to process, we need some means of focusing our attention. Even prior to the glut of our information age it was impossible to ever hope to process or use all the pieces of information available. The frame was a means of trying to make sense of the world around us.

Most people rarely pay any more attention to this automatic mental process than they do to walking. However, we can pay a high price for this much-needed simplicity. Frames can play tricks on our mind with a number of built-in dangers. Russo and Schoemaker list these mental “tricks.”

–Frames filter or limit what we see. They control the information we’re paying attention to and obscure the rest. It’s important to remember that no single window can reveal the entire panorama.

–Frames are often hard to see. Just as you have to step back from the window to see it, you have to step back from your own perspective to identify the frame you’re using. That’s a learned behavior, not automatic.

–Frames appear to be complete. Since they don’t capture all of reality, we tend to fill in the gaps and rarely notice that anything is missing. That’s why, when questioning or arguing a position, I always tell my clients to ask the question, “what am I missing?”

–Frames are exclusive. You can’t look out two windows at the same time. Just so, we rarely even think that we should be considering other frames.

–Frames can be “sticky” and even difficult to either identify or change. It takes a conscious effort. And when there’s an emotional attachment to a frame, to change can seem threatening.

Winning Decisions does a masterful job of elaborating on how to assess, change, unstick and change frames. Though published in 2002, the book remains one of the two or three best resources for effective decision making.

Minimum-wage research
The second issue of significance in Brooks’ commentary is the problem of minimum wage research. Although a number of studies have dealt with the issue, the results are conflicting, and that’s putting it mildly. In a Washington Post opinion commentary, Minimum-Wage Mirage, Robert Samuelson discusses the research, providing links to the major research summaries.

Significantly, Samuelson discusses the present context, suggesting that the research may be beside the point. He may be quite right on that. On the one hand he argues that businesses make their decisions on their own economic outlook, rather than on wage costs. His conclusion? Businesses may not react to a higher minimum wage as they have done in the past. But on the other hand, the economy of 2008 and following has spawned so many fears that companies have changed their usual behavior and become more cautious.

Brooks’ argument
I believe you’ll find the commentary highly provocative, but in brief summary fashion, here are Brooks’ perspectives on the inequality problem.

To frame the issue as income equality lumps together different issues that are not especially related. Aside from the growing wealth of the top 5%, there’s a growing class of people that are stuck on the margins, caused by the disappearance of low-skill jobs, the break-down of family structures, poor schooling, etc.
The inequality frame leads to ineffective policy responses. The minimum wage change would be targeted to the wrong people. Furthermore, the primary problem for the poor is that they are not working full-time or at all. The minimum wage doesn’t affect that problem significantly.
The inequality frame contributes to our tendency to simplify complex cultural, social, behavioral and economic problems into strictly economic. To quote the first senator of Missouri, Thomas Hart Benton (1844-1858), it’s another “bad case of the simples.”
The income inequality framing needlessly polarizes the debate. It’s a bad confusion between cause and effect.
Well, if the “income equality” issue bugs you at all like it does me, you’ll want to read over Brooks’ argument. It’s a classic University of Chicago analysis from one of our best conservative commentators—and I, unlike Brooks, usually vote as a progressive.

Flickr photo: robayre

, , ,

Comments are closed.