Thursday, 13 November 2014

Narrative-friendly rhetoric and good public policy

The blogger Scott Alexander recently posted about the conflicting Red and Blue narratives in US politics, whereby every issue (even Ebola) seems to immediately become polarised along partisan lines. In the post, he discusses the application of moral foundations theory to environmental attitudes, noting that conservatives might be persuaded to take action on global warming if the issue were couched in such a way as to be consistent with the Red narrative. Specifically, he recommends deploying the following kind of rhetoric:
In the 1950s, brave American scientists shunned by the climate establishment of the day discovered that the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gas emissions, leading to potentially devastating natural disasters that could destroy American agriculture and flood American cities. As a result, the country mobilized against the threat. Strong government action by the Bush administration outlawed the worst of these gases, and brilliant entrepreneurs were able to discover and manufacture new cleaner energy sources. As a result of these brave decisions, our emissions stabilized and are currently declining
Unfortunately, even as we do our part, the authoritarian governments of Russia and China continue to industralize and militarize rapidly as part of their bid to challenge American supremacy. As a result, Communist China is now by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas producer, with the Russians close behind. Many analysts believe Putin secretly welcomes global warming as a way to gain access to frozen Siberian resources and weaken the more temperate United States at the same time. These countries blow off huge disgusting globs of toxic gas, which effortlessly cross American borders and disrupt the climate of the United States. Although we have asked them to stop several times, they refuse, perhaps egged on by major oil producers like Iran and Venezuela who have the most to gain by keeping the world dependent on the fossil fuels they produce and sell to prop up their dictatorships. 
We need to take immediate action. While we cannot rule out the threat of military force, we should start by using our diplomatic muscle to push for firm action at top-level summits like the Kyoto Protocol. Second, we should fight back against the liberals who are trying to hold up this important work, from big government bureaucrats trying to regulate clean energy to celebrities accusing people who believe in global warming of being ‘racist’. Third, we need to continue working with American industries to set an example for the world by decreasing our own emissions in order to protect ourselves and our allies. Finally, we need to punish people and institutions who, instead of cleaning up their own carbon, try to parasitize off the rest of us and expect the federal government to do it for them. 
Please join our brave men and women in uniform in pushing for an end to climate change now.
Today I came across a real-life example of narrative-friendly rhetoric, though this time aimed at progressives. In a moderately decent TED talk on why we should end the war on drugs, Ethan Nadelmann frames the issue of drug prohibition in a manner that accords whole-heartedly with the Blue narrative:
People tend to think of prohibition as the ultimate form of regulation when in fact it represents the abdication of regulation with criminals filling the void. Which is why putting criminal laws and police front and center in trying to control a dynamic global commodities market is a recipe for disaster. And what we really need to do is to bring the underground drug markets as much as possible aboveground and regulate them as intelligently as we can to minimize both the harms of drugs and the harms of prohibitionist policies.
Rather than arguing that the illegality of drugs implies there is too much regulation, he suggests that the criminal nature of drug markets implies there is too little regulation, thereby turning conventional libertarian rhetoric on its head. This kind of argument appeals to progressives because, in the Blue narrative, regulation is seen as good and the absence of regulation is seen as bad. Nadelmann brings the point home by describing how various government interventions were successfully used to reduce the incidence of smoking: 
When researchers ask heroin addicts what's the toughest drug to quit, most say cigarettes. Yet in my country and many others, half of all the people who were ever addicted to cigarettes have quit without anyone being arrested or put in jail or sent to a "treatment program" by a prosecutor or a judge. What did it were higher taxes and time and place restrictions on sale and use and effective anti-smoking campaigns.
In an age of increasing political polarisation (at least in the US), narrative-friendly rhetoric may be the best available tool for achieving bipartisan co-operation, which is likely to be a precondition for good public policy. 

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