2013 has begun!

On behalf of the team at NPI, I’d like to wish all of our read­ers, donors, and vol­un­teers a hap­py, healthy, and pros­per­ous new year.

2013 holds spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance for us, because it is NPI’s tenth year. We’ll be cel­e­brat­ing this remark­able mile­stone that you’ve helped make pos­si­ble all year long — online, at our Spring Fundrais­ing Gala in April, at Net­roots Nation in June, and at our Tenth Anniver­sary Bash on Thurs­day, August 22nd. (Mark your calendars!)

I rang in the new year with rev­ellers on Queen Anne, as I have for many years run­ning. Here’s a snap­shot which shows the view I and many oth­ers enjoyed of the annu­al fire­works show at the Space Needle:

New Year's at the Needle 2013
Seat­tle rings in the new year with a fire­works show at the Space Nee­dle. (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

New Year’s is often asso­ci­at­ed with new begin­nings. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly appro­pri­ate in pol­i­tics because the con­se­quences of elec­tions usu­al­ly come to pass in ear­ly to mid-Jan­u­ary, when new­ly-elect­ed office­hold­ers take their oaths and for­mal­ly assume respon­si­bil­i­ty for gov­ern­ing their jurisdictions.

Notably, in Wash­ing­ton, Jay Inslee, Bob Fer­gu­son, Kim Wyman, and Troy Kel­ley will be join­ing the exec­u­tive depart­ment as gov­er­nor, attor­ney gen­er­al, sec­re­tary of state, and audi­tor, respec­tive­ly. The 2013 Leg­is­la­ture will con­vene the same week. At the fed­er­al lev­el, new mem­bers of Con­gress will take their seats just two days from now. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s sec­ond inau­gur­al will be held on Jan­u­ary 21st; he will be pri­vate­ly sworn in for his sec­ond term the day before.

A host of prob­lems awaits our new and return­ing elect­ed offi­cials. Years of pro­cras­ti­na­tion and fis­cal irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty have left our state and coun­try in a pre­car­i­ous posi­tion. Instead of invest­ing to keep our pub­lic ser­vices strong dur­ing dif­fi­cult times, we’ve been cut­ting… and cut­ting… and cutting.

One cycle of aus­ter­i­ty begets anoth­er, but we haven’t learned that les­son. Instead of tack­ling our giant infra­struc­ture deficit and restor­ing bad­ly need­ed fund­ing to our first respon­ders, parks, uni­ver­si­ties, col­leges, and schools, we’re argu­ing over which of the Bush tax cuts should be extend­ed and the order in which our remain­ing pub­lic ser­vices should go on the chop­ping block.

His­to­ry tells us that what the right wing wants to do — shred ser­vices and enact more tax cuts (par­tic­u­lar­ly for the wealthy) — is not a pre­scrip­tion for pros­per­i­ty. The truth is, it takes invest­ment to build a strong coun­try and a strong state. We are ben­e­fit­ing right now from the invest­ments that pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of tax­pay­ers made with their tax dol­lars. But we’re not doing our part to ensure that future gen­er­a­tions will have a healthy Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca to inherit.

Stub­born prob­lems are only insur­mount­able or unsolv­able if we believe them to be. Often, we pre­tend that things that are man­made are out­side of our con­trol, when in real­i­ty, that’s not the case. Take the so-called fis­cal cliff (the top entry in the list of Ban­ished Words for 2013). There is no actu­al cliff; the phrase evokes a metaphor.

But it’s a bad metaphor.

What does the phrase fis­cal cliff bring to mind? When we hear the word cliff, we think of a ver­ti­cal, or near­ly ver­ti­cal, rock face. Most of us have seen some pret­ty impres­sive cliffs, or at least pic­tures of cliffs. A cliff is a dan­ger­ous place for a per­son to be, because a stum­ble could result in a fall, lead­ing to seri­ous injury or death. A derived word, cliffhang­er, brings to mind “the image of some­one left hang­ing from a cliff, there­by hav­ing an uncer­tain fate”, as Wik­tionary defines it.

Cliffs are not made by human beings. The forces that cre­at­ed the Earth we know and inhab­it today are not with­in our control.

Our finances, how­ev­er, are com­plete­ly under our control.

Past Con­gress­es enact­ed tax cuts sched­uled to end with the arrival of 2013, approved unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits also sched­uled to end with the arrival of 2013, and decid­ed that auto­mat­ic reduc­tions in expen­di­tures would go into effect by a cer­tain date in 2013. Our prob­lems are entire­ly of our own mak­ing. That’s why we at NPI use the phrase man­u­fac­tured fis­cal cri­sis instead of “fis­cal cliff”. Man­u­fac­tured fis­cal cri­sis evokes a much more appro­pri­ate and accu­rate image in our minds.

Jan­u­ary 1st, 2013 began an hour and a half ago. When the clock struck twelve, a num­ber of pre­vi­ous acts of Con­gress took effect (or, con­verse­ly, expired).

But no life-threat­en­ing calami­ty befell our nation at that point. We did not teeter off of some cliff and into a chasm when the clock struck twelve. The date sim­ply changed, and in many places, the air was filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of explod­ing fire­works. Con­gress can still choose to extend (or not extend) cer­tain tax cuts, alter the fed­er­al bud­get, and adjust the nation’s statu­to­ry bor­row­ing lim­it at any time. It did not lose any of its pow­ers when the new year arrived.

Of course, what Con­gress ulti­mate­ly does — or fails to do — mat­ters. The House and Sen­ate can­not dither indef­i­nite­ly; if they do, the con­se­quences of pre­vi­ous­ly-approved leg­is­la­tion will begin to take effect. As pro­gres­sives, we should be advo­cat­ing for Con­gress to adopt a course of action that rais­es Amer­i­ca’s qual­i­ty of life — a course of action con­sist­ing of pol­i­cy direc­tions built on the log­ic of pro­gres­sive val­ues. It is our job as pro­gres­sives to explain what that course is and what we are for, not sim­ply what are stand against. We have to coher­ent­ly com­mu­ni­cate what we are about; no one is going to tell our sto­ry for us.

If we want to mean­ing­ful­ly improve the nation­al dia­logue, we have to learn how to reframe. Refram­ing requires dis­ci­pline; it’s hard to do. We at NPI are admit­ted­ly stick­lers for refram­ing, but that is because we can­not go on offense with­out refram­ing. The lan­guage we use should reflect our deeply-held con­vic­tions. The metaphors we employ should be cho­sen with care.

We should avoid tak­ing any cues from the tra­di­tion­al media, because the tra­di­tion­al media is fre­quent­ly wrong. Espe­cial­ly when it comes to com­mu­ni­cat­ing news and infor­ma­tion about the economy.

If you read only one book in 2013, read Don’t Buy It: The Trou­ble with Talk­ing Non­sense about the Econ­o­my, by Anat Shenker-Oso­rio, pub­lished in late 2012. As the author writes in the book’s preface:

Dur­ing my career explor­ing the range of ways peo­ple under­stand com­plex polit­i­cal issues, I’ve seen one thing over and [over] again: when we’re using the wrong metaphor, we’re send­ing the wrong mes­sage. When we frame our argu­ments with lan­guage that sug­gest the econ­o­my is a deity, or even a less­er liv­ing thing, we make our favored eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy solu­tions inco­her­ent in the process. In fact, we pave the way for con­ser­v­a­tive argu­ments about slash­ing bud­gets and elim­i­nat­ing ser­vices as the one true path to eco­nom­ic success.

Don’t Buy It is a thought-pro­vok­ing, eye-open­ing book that builds on the work of George Lakoff and oth­er refram­ing pio­neers. Read Don’t Buy It, and you’ll appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of dis­card­ing bad metaphors like “fis­cal cliff”.

When we use the wrong metaphor, we send the wrong mes­sage. That’s a les­son we all need to take to heart in this new year.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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