Economics Behaving Badly Op-Ed in New York Times

RE: Economics Behaving Badly by George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/opinion/15loewenstein.html
This guest editorial by two prominent economists is important to framers for a number of reasons.

First, it shows how different disciplinary perspectives bias understanding toward different solutions. There are no frameless transactions.  Behavioral economics shines the light on…behavior. With that beacon comes inevitably a shift in the assignment of responsibility to individuals, not to systems.

Second, as these economists see it, that shift in perspective is distracting from real solutions.  You can (arguably) get some minor change from the aggregate of individual behaviors, but not enough to fundamentally address the social problems that are at issue.  Think how smoking cessation programs or designated driver campaigns ultimately distracted from systemic changes (tobacco regulation or sobriety checkpoints, for example) that have been shown to have major impacts on population health.

Third, this article should provoke framers to consider the conundrum we are up against as we enter the paradigms and practices of our own news media.  Frame these issues as an individual story of behavior change and you get…policies that emphasize choice.   But isn’t choice an important American value and a cornerstone of our democracy? Sure.  But it isn’t all that’s at issue.  In a mediated environment whose goal is to “deliver  eyeballs to advertisers,” the fact that we frame public issues as individual choices or “news you can use” obscures the broader social forces at play in constraining or promoting those choices and inevitably leads us to favor public policy options that are less effective than those that require more systems thinking. Where are the advocates and the news outlets to champion systems thinking?

Even as advocates celebrate the fact that important public health issues are now back in the news – obesity, child nutrition, etc. – we should ask ourselves whether the framing of these issues is congruent with the solutions we believe are effective in addressing them.

Susan Nall Bales
President, FrameWorks Institute

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