“Springboard,” Not Safety Net

November 20th, 2008

I wrote an email to economist Alan Blinder at Princeton last week (which he was kind enough to respond to), in response to his NYT piece addressing our current…issues.

“social safety net”…America’s is in tatters…we need both repairs and a new metaphor. Lyndon B. Johnson had it right when he called upon the government to provide a “hand up, not a handout.” The Obama administration should seek to create a new “social trampoline” that not only catches people when they fall, but also propels them back into productive employment. If properly designed, such a social trampoline would both ease the short-run pain of recession and facilitate the long-run adjustment to globalization.

This man was speaking my language, though not quite in my words. I sed:

Just to second your notion in the NYT of renaming the safety net. If I could give our new president one piece of advice, it would be that.

But…”trampoline” sounds decidedly…risky, unpredictable, unsafe.

How about “platform,” or “springboard”?

Professor Blinder liked the language.

This may seem like nothing but rhetorical spin, but it’s important. “Safety net” gives the impression of catching failures. “Springboard” is about encouraging achievers–giving them a place to stand, and a little extra bounce on their way up.

Rhetorical advantages aside (it’s a lot easier to sell Americans on opportunity than on rescue, as the Republicans demonstrated for thirty years), it frames the whole discussion as a way to make everyone more prosperous–a non-zero-sum game–and thus engenders policies and programs that pursue that goal.

Yes, social-support programs can give some people the incentive to screw off and game the government. But they can equally give people the stable platform they need to work their way up and into the greater economic system–to succeed.

Again, progressives need to stop playing defense in the prosperity game. It’s not equity versus growth; it’s equity and growth. The Republicans don’t have the pro-growth policies. We do.

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