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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Who will frame the political debate in favour of the wealth creators?

In political communications, one often talks of ‘framing the debate’ – that is, defining the way an issue is discussed by defining the context. It’s closely related to what behavioural psychologists call the 'anchoring effect', something so extrardinary that studying it makes it hard to maintain much hope in for rationality.

The anchoring effect has been well explored in countless experiments. One example: when people were asked the two-part question “Is the height of the tallest redwood tree more or less than 1,200 feet? What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood tree?” the average answer to the second part was 844 feet. When 1,200 was changed to 180 feet for another sample, the average estimate dropped to 282. So people’s guesses were much more influenced by the ‘anchor’ than their own independent thinking.

Here’s the shocker: even when that anchor is clearly irrelevant and random – when people are asked to first spin a number wheel, read out the number, and then to make an estimate (say the price of a given bottle of wine) – the obviously irrelevant random number resulting from wheel spin has a strong effect on the subsequent price estimate. Here's the worst part: in an experiment about the effects of irrelevant 'anchors' on estimating the value of a house (an example given by Daniel Kahnemann in his brilliant book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”), the distorting effect on estimates was almost as great among real estate professionals as among inexperienced students.

We really don’t have much idea what to think until someone puts a stake in the ground (it hardly matters where) according to which we can then position ourselves. Framing and anchoring are incredibly powerful effects even when they are random and even among 'experts', and political debate depends on them heavily. In the early days of the global warming debate, only those arguing for catastrophic man-made damage made their case, and consequently the estimates of the speed of change (and the needed remedies) spiralled upwards. When the antis made their arguments (whether right or wrong) they put down an alternative anchor and brought the speculations back to a significantly narrower range.

Governments rarely legislate at one extreme of the 'frame' but try to place their policy between the two sides. In contested areas there will probably be no right answer, and neither is the frame likely to be based on any rational basis. Indeed if there is no right answer, there can also be no right frame. It is activists - whether arguing in the pub, dropping leaflets through doors or writing articles in newspapers and blogs - who drop their anchors all over the place to establish the frame; sometimes these are based on real knowledge and experience, sometimes they are as random as a roulette.

Clearly it doesn't pay for activists to be compromisers, or to engage in subtlety. Every inch given away moves the centre of the frame away from their side, so they must put their case vividly, simply, and as extremely as they can make stick. In this way activists define our world. It's unreliable, but taken all together, activists surely create a safer condition for government when they pull in different directions.

The debate around business issues seems to be turning dangerously one-sided. For pro-capitalists, these are difficult times. The anchors are dropping much more heavily on the egalitarian side. Not many can resist the desire to increase taxes on the rich, and the frame has for some time been moving away from the business case. Even a stalwart Conservative like Tim Montgomerie will not argue for lower taxes as a good in itself, but now concedes that we should increase wealth taxes in order to cut tax on low incomes. Whatever the merits of his argument, the effect will be to shift the frame a little further left. The majority will always be happy to increase taxes on the rich, but I doubt you'll see an equivalent reduction at the other end. (And anyway, wealth is mobile, and the rich have plenty of choices; many will simply move their money, reducing the tax take. If ConservativeHome doesn't hold the line on this stuff, who else will?).

My point, though ramblingly arrived at, is basic: even though our political leaders are really followers of haphazardly framed public opinion, it all works better if there is plenty of strong divergent actvism and it worries me when all the travel is away from capitalism.


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