Offering daily news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Happy New Year: Welcome 2013!

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.