January 21, 2015

Imagine a TV salesman says that as you read this, your friend from college, who you’ve always rather unsecretly had a kind of semi-twisted bromantic rivalry with, is getting a much bigger TV than you. Also much, um, crisper. Where the blacks are blacker or some nonsense.

 

Perhaps a few people would shout “Ohhhhhh no. Trevor is NOT upstaging me, TV-wise!” These people are mostly sitcom husbands.

 

The vast majority of us get annoyed. Even if we might, psychologically, hate the thought of being outdone by that guy who used to think he was God’s gift to parties for bringing Harp instead of Bud Light, we definitely don’t want to be reminded of it. Most people, in fact, will start thinking of reasons they don’t need that TV. Trevor always was about conspicuous consumption. He had a terrible TV to begin with. He needs to watch so much TV because his marriage is falling apart. He’s just overcompensating for his tiny, embarrassing Miata.

 

This case gets made with more than TVs, though. We’re frequently encouraged by policymakers to treat other countries like the proverbial Joneses. China is the most often Jonsed these days, but it happens with lots of nations. Russia spends more on infrastructure than we do, the President has chided us. Finland and South Korea spend more per child on education. Practically everyone in Europe has more access to healthcare, we’re warned, and is doing more to curb climate change.  And last night, in the State of the Union address the President threatened…

 

“As we speak, China wants to write the [trade] rules for the world's fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules.”

 

This line of reasoning is not specific to the President, or to Democrats. The conclusions of these arguments are always the same as the President’s last night: if we don’t do what I am proposing, America is going to fall behind. The logic goes something like this: Americans love America, and being first at things, and are afraid their own influence being eclipsed by China’s, after all. So this will be motivating.

 

Trouble is, it’s not. In every case m+p has studied, over the course of several years, this argument is rejected. And it’s rejected across the political spectrum. We’ve studied the trade debate recently, and we’ve tested this exact argument about China getting to “write the rules.” We tested it in DC, and we tested it with blue collar workers in Cleveland, and with business owners in Charlotte. None of them found it convincing. We’ve tested this argument on infrastructure investment. And we’ve tested it on education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reactions on the right aren’t cranky outliers, but the overwhelming sentiment of our whole sample in each case. Notice that each objection is a bit different, but basically contends we can’t measure other countries by the same stick we use to measure the US.

 

What’s at work here? Good old American exceptionalism? That’s part of it. But we’ve tested the argument in other countries, too. And it doesn’t work there either.

 

What’s really happening is people simply reject the premise that we need to do something because other people are doing it. It just feels wrong. If China jumped off a bridge…well you get it.

 

Policy advocates using this argument think they’re playing on patriotism and pride. That’s never how it’s interpreted. Instead it turns a complex issue into a kind of prisoner’s dilemma: someone else is gonna get one over on you if you don’t do this. It’s an uncomfortable reason to want something—a TV or a trade deal. Audiences feel bad, and start trying to think of reasons why that argument is wrong, even if they’re predisposed to like the policy.

 

People want to believe they’re acting because of what they’ll gain, not because of what they might lose. Last night the President started out with the right reason to open up trade, I think: “21st century businesses, including small businesses, need to sell more American products overseas.” This is much better because it’s about us, not China or Finland.

 

Policy advocates who are first to realize the “foreigners are outflanking us” case is a threat, not a play on national pride, and who keep the debate focused on what Americans gain, will have an advantage: they’ll keep audiences listening.

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