journeyman62 / Flickr roller coaster...
journeyman62 / Flickr

One of the most powerful tools the corporate special interest movement has is their framing of the economy. What this means is that corporate special interests have developed a story about the economy that they share through all of their propaganda outlets, and many people have bought into this story.

We’re all familiar with this story. It looks like capitalists (good) vs. socialists (bad). Some of the features of this story include:

  • We need to let markets “work”
  • Success is defined by individual achievement
  • Regulations “hold back” the economy
  • The private sector is better at everything
  • Government should stay out of the way

You know the story.

What we will examine today is how to avoid some of the traps that this story sets, and how to tell a better story about our economy.

The reason to do this is because one of the best ways to win is to have a better story about how something works. We don’t struggle critiquing the problems of laissez-faire capitalism. However, when it comes to talking about what would be better, all too often we fall into the traps of corporate special interest group propaganda.

The better story is about democracy and capitalism.

1. Democracy and capitalism

The first thing corporate special interest group framing on the economy does is try to claim that laissez-faire capitalism is true “capitalism” and everything else is socialism. What they try and do is make what they want look as good as possible, and also demonize anyone who disagrees.

If you don’t define what you believe, in this framing and worldview, it’s very likely you will be seen as a socialist: an enemy.

For this reason, one of the best ways to fight is to break out of the corporate special interest group frame entirely. Redefine the entire battlefield by talking about how what really makes countries economically successful is democracy and capitalism.

If you need some good research to back this up, economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson talk about what makes nations’ economies strong in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. 

The answer is democracy. It’s when an economy is run for the broad benefit of people in the country. By contrast, most third-world countries are what they call extraction economies. In an extraction economy, all the benefits go to a few people at the top.

On this battlefield, any opponents are against democracy. They’re for running the country for a few people. They’re for economic feudalism.

Many people who are used to corporate special interest group framing aren’t sure what to do when you can shift discussions onto the battlefield of democracy.

2. Corruption in a democracy

Now that you’ve redefined the battlefield, let’s see what else this impacts.

In corporate special interest group laissez-faire capitalist framing, corruption is defined as government “interfering” in the economy.

If you “own,” you should be able to do whatever they want. If you buy the laissez-faire narrative, you think the economy will do better the less government is involved. This is where all the “small government” talk comes from. Many people sincerely believe this narrative.

If we just “let markets work,” everything will be fine.

I like to ask people what they would have done during feudalism, when the king owned everything. Literally, today’s wealth barons are arguing for a new type of feudalism and they are simply going to market to you that things will be great if sit back and do nothing.

In the democracy frame, corruption is very different. Corruption, in the democracy frame, is when corporate special interests or the wealthy purchase government.

I like to ask people what they think is the problem in Washington, D.C. They will always say something like “money in politics.” I like to draw this out for them.

The problem we’re seeing in the United States.

If you draw the above picture and can get people to see that this is the problem, it’s easy to draw the solution.

First though, I usually draw the following to show people what corporate special interests tell us.

How does "smaller government" solve corruption?
How does selling government off to corporate special interests get rid of corruption?

Then you can draw the picture of democracy that our founding fathers envisioned.

Democracy as envisioned by our founders. 

Both government and corporations should benefit people. In this vision of how things work—the vision of our founders—corporations were only chartered for the public good. In other words, they were chartered to serve people.

We placed strict rules on corporations for 100 years after the Revolutionary War because we fought the war as much against the British East India Company monopoly as we did the British. That tea that was dumped in the harbor … it wasn’t just any tea. It was monopoly tea.

Some of the limits we established in our fledgling representative democracy were:

  • Charters were granted for a limited time and would expire if not periodically renewed.
  • Corporations could only engage in activities necessary to fulfill their charter.
  • Corporations were often terminated if they exceeded their charter or caused public harm.
  • Corporations could not make political or charitable contributions nor spend money to influence law-making.
  • Owners and managers were responsible for criminal acts committed on the job.

If you redraw the world to illustrate how democracy and capitalism work, you lay the groundwork for people to accept better ideas.

This is why after the financial collapse, corporations invested so heavily in marketing their own framing of what happened. One of the reasons we have Republicans run government nine years after the financial collapse is because corporate special interests doubled down on laissez-faire capitalism marketing.

One of the things people often fail to recognize is that two people in the same conversation can be using entirely different definitions of corruption.

If we win on framing, we win on what corruption means.

3. What does the public sector do well? What does the private sector do well?

In corporate special interest group framing, the private sector is always the answer. This is because corporate special interests have an agenda on behalf of their interest. If the private sector “owns” the answer, they will always get what they want.

In a democracy, we’re not so limited. We can look at what each does well and what each does poorly.

LG booth at the Consumer Electronics Show 2017
LG booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2017. 

I like to ask people: “What does the private sector do well and what does the public sector do well?”

Most of the time they haven’t even thought about this because they’ve been told so often that private sector = good.

All you have to do to make this framing make more sense than the marketing they’re used to is show them an example or two.

For example, the private sector is good at consumer products.

It’s not so good, however, at providing service to all citizens of our country. For example, when we wanted to build a telephone system that would reach everyone and provide service to everyone, the public sector did a better job. When we build road and transportation access to people, the public sector does better.

In both of these instances, it wouldn’t be profitable to provide the same level of service to rural areas, so they would be neglected.

This video does a wonderful job at explaining the difference between the goals of a business and the goals of a democratic government.

In the private sector, the overriding incentive is profit.

How do you make the most profit? By delivering the least amount of service.

This is why, unless incentives are structured correctly, the private sector does a terrible job at:

  • Health care (our healthcare system is the most expensive in the world and delivers mediocre results)
  • Education (the incentive can be to deliver the least amount of education)
  • Justice (individuals will get the justice they can afford)
  • Law enforcement (if you can pay, you will have protection)
  • The military
  • Fire departments
  • Charities
  • Public utilities

With proper regulation, structuring of incentives, and oversight, the private sector can do some of these things well.

A healthy democratic government is needed, however, to ensure it works. It doesn’t just “happen,” as we’re told by corporate special interest propaganda.


Corporate special interests like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent billions of dollars on marketing, and that marketing’s entire purpose is to reframe our country to help their wealthy constituencies.

My favorite model for learning looks like this:

Dan Mezick's results pyramid from The Culture Game.
Dan Mezick’s learning pyramid from his book “The Culture Game.”

If we can teach people better beliefs and values, we get better results. When we build this better framework for people around the economy, many many more things suddenly “make sense” to people where they might not have before.

Within the context of democracy and capitalism, the following policies make sense to people:

  • Repealing Citizens United
  • A fair and non-partisan election process
  • Getting money out of politics
  • The Fairness Doctrine
  • Voting rights
  • Public financing of elections
  • Public education
  • Regulations and standards for corporations

People may not “get it” immediately, but shifting the battlefield to democracy helps people understand why liberals believe what we believe, and can break people out of corporate special interest group thinking.


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