“The language of economics and individualism” 

(Posted by Sandeep)

The New York Times ran a piece by Yale professors Theodore R. Marmor (public policy emeritus) and Jerry L. Mashaw (law) discussing how public discourse has shifted from “the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history” in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s to ” individual choice, agency and preferences” today.

“[T]here is a crucial difference between then and now: the words that our political leaders use to talk about our problems have changed. Where politicians once drew on a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.

“This is more than a superficial difference in rhetoric. It threatens to deprive us of the intellectual resources needed to address today’s problems.”

I wonder how much of this change is a consequence of the 24-hour media cycle, the vast amounts of information on the Internet, and the ability of pretty much anyone with a keyboard, microphone, or video camera to get his views heard. It’s much harder to shape public discourse when everyone else is trying to do so in different ways. The Internet, especially, levels the playing field: even a president can’t make his voice heard much louder if the background din is too strong.

“In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions.”

Marmor and Mashaw lay the blame too squarely on the government and don’t indict the media enough. In considering the state of today’s public discourse, it’s important to remember that there’s no more “gentleman’s agreement” between politicians and news outlets anymore. Can anyone imagine today’s photojournalists mercifully agreeing to photograph a polio-ridden FDR only from the waist up? Yesterday’s polite standards are long gone; today’s media is “hard-hitting,” if not always on the mark.

It’s pretty incredible how pithy headlines — especially in this era of low attention spans (particularly in my generation) — can send a politician’s or government’s message tumbling out of control. It’s the difference between a front page headline of “Obama unveils ambitious $3-trillion jobs plan” and “Economists doubtful that Obama’s ‘job-killing’ plan will work.” For the short-of-attention, one headline conveys a significantly different message than the other. Why bother even reading the analysis if we seem to get the point from the headline?

Despite politicians’ intents and careful calculus, their message has to pass through an unforgiving (and often biased) filter before it reaches their constituents. Politicians no longer have sole control over their voice. (Did they ever? Or were media outlets just more cooperative back then?) My generation — including me, I admit! — ingests its news and analysis through tweets and Facebook shares rather than deep analysis. Many older people, too. I don’t wake up to a Times on my family’s front porch anymore; I wake up to a Facebook feed.

Perhaps our discourse is out of control. We have a lot of things to blame for that, not least ourselves. The Internet has taught my generation, for better or worse, that the ability to get our voice heard means that our voice is worth hearing. So we all shout. As we come of age, I can’t imagine things reverting much.

Marmor and Mashaw write:

“Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

“Can we talk about this? Maybe not.”