Don't Buy It- An Interview with Anat Shenker
DON'T BUY IT: THE TROUBLE WITH TALKING NONSENSE ABOUT THE ECONOMY is a new book from Anat Shenker-Osorio that shows us how wrong-headed metaphors and deceptive language have muddled our economic thinking, and how better word choice alone can win the debate for a fair and just economy. We had the pleasure of talking with Anat about her book. She has several book events this weekend in the Bay Area.
September 21st, Book Passage, Ferry Building San Francisco 6pm
September 22nd, Temescal Library, Oakland 2:30pm
September 27th, World Affairs Council, San Francisco, 6:30 networking, 7pm program starts ($5 for students; $15 regular; WAC members free)
Ella's Voice- What was your inspiration for writing Don't Buy It?
I'd completed a series of deep dives into what our language demonstrates about the unconscious ways we make sense of the economy. And the findings were, on the one hand, disheartening. So much of progressive language that I analyzed, from organizations I respect and admire, economists I find brilliant, not to mention that of the media and lay people discussing money matters, tilted thoroughly into conservative notions of the economy as best left alone.
On the other hand, these findings were uplifting. There are so many facets of the policy process that are out of our hands. The money, the corruption, the inequity -- I could go on. By no means do I think changing language and with it influencing judgment, reasoning, perception and assumptions is easy, or quick. But, I believe it's possible and more within our grasp than say stopping mega billionaires from buying Congress people.
I wrote it because we don't have to accept the cognitive underpinnings behind the toxic cut and slash, rich as job creators, environment vs. economy, mindsets that are hurting our people. I wrote it to equip fellow activists, whether they engage in social and political issues just at dinner with their conservative uncle or full time for a living, with words that will work.
Why do you think the language we use to discuss the economy has such a profound impact on politics and economics?
Economics, in particular, in study after study, is considered something hard to understand. A subject for experts and math geniuses. In America, we have little to no schooling in economics and so it's common to find the topic intimidating.
But economic policy is the most basic way we set priorities as a society. It's how we instantiate our values as a nation -- demonstrating who and what matters and, conversely, who and what is expendable.
Given these two things, the importance of economic policy and its seeming complexity, it's very easy to do a snow job on the American public. And this begins with the language we (mis)use to characterize what this economy thing "is" and how it operates.
How are we/will we be seeing this during this election season?
We're already seeing conservatives whip out notions of the economy as a real, natural, self-governing entity with not just agency, put intentionality. The economy decides things, needs things, wants things. For example, our sacrifices to it -- a word literally used alongside its buddy "austerity." As Romney is fond of saying (emphasis his), "we have a MORAL RESPONSIBILITY to not spend more than we take in." This kind of talk is so common, it tends to wash over us. But when you stop to consider it, it's profound. What is the "moral" discomfort with a deficit? And how could it possibly trump the moral outrage of making people homeless, seeing children starve, not providing medicine to the elderly and so on?
What's the easiest step we can take towards changing how we discuss the economy?
If we would just eliminate the passive voice -- the "mistakes were made" -- rhetoric we favor, that would be huge. We are often so loathe to name any villains, it seems as if the calamities we face are visited upon us like some kind of act of nature. This not only lets bad actors off the hook, it fails to establish that our problems -- being made by people -- could be unmade by people, if we so choose.
What do you wish progressive-minded Americans knew about language and the economy?
What we imply is true, especially with our metaphors, is as and arguably more powerful than what we overtly assert.
Anything else you would like to add?
Since this is -- in a sense -- my hometown "paper" I really want to thank Oakland and celebrate its role in this book. I wrote almost every word of this in local Oakland businesses: Pizzaiolo, Arbor, Remedy (now closed), Sweet Adeline. (Well, technically, that last one is in Berkeley.)
I feel so lucky to live in a community that has vibrant local businesses where an independent consultant like me can work without having to pay the overhead of an office. And not just work, but be routinely inspired by the many new activist friends I made while sharing a table at these places. It's amazing to me how much of the time the person randomly sitting next to me happened to also be working for social justice