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Talking Past Each Other, by Kusnet, Mishel, and Teixeira

By an everyday book reader
November 1, 2007

In a series of focus groups in 2005 and 2006, EPI asked middle-class Americans to discuss their economic insecurities. The discussions revealed not only a profound ambivalence about the economy, but also a widening gap between the ways that everyday Americans and influential elites talk about the economy. Co-authored by David Kusnet, Lawrence Mishel, and Ruy Teixeira, this book discusses that gap and how to bridge it, allowing for changing economic, social, and political conditions. The study includes a special section that offers 12 suggestions for how to 'speak American' when talking about economics.

Talking Past Each Other : What Everyday Americans Really Think (and Elites Don't Get) About the Economy
by David Kusnet, Lawrence Mishel, and Ruy TeixeiraBook Picture

ISBN: 9781932066272, 1932066276
Economic Policy Institute
December 2006

From the book's introduction:

"The economists don't know what they're talking about."

A participant made that statement during a focus group conducted recently by the public opinion analyst Celinda Lake. This sentiment was echoed by participants in several focus groups and national surveys that the Economic Policy Institute conducted with middle-class people in 2005 and 2006.

These focus groups discussed Americans' economic insecurities -- their daily struggles to make ends meet, provide for their children's futures, save for their own retirements, and prepare for potential emergencies, without plunging deeper into debt.

But the focus group discussions also revealed a widening gap between the ways that everyday Americans and influential elites talk about the economy. When the man at the focus group attacked "the economists," he wasn't only talking about professional economists, he meant just about everyone involved in the national debates and decisions about economic policy, across the political spectrum -- from Bush Administration officials to their critics in Congress, and from corporate executives to academic experts of every viewpoint.

This disconnect is of profound importance. The elites are making and discussing eco-nom ic policies in an environment in which -- though they may not realize it -- they are poorly informed about the views of the very people who will be affected by those policies. This is of particular importance now that a relatively optimistic elite discourse about strong growth in the gross domestic product and other positive macroeconomic indicators coexists with a sharply negative assessment of economic conditions among the public.

On one level, the gap between everyday Americans and the policy-making, opinion-shaping, agenda-setting elites shouldn't be surprising. After all, participants in national debates discuss the issues from the perspective of public policies and economic theories. But everyday Americans understand economic issues from the vantage point of their own experiences and the lens of their own values. No wonder it often seems that, when they talk about economics, everyday Americans and influential elites seem to be describing two very different worlds and speaking two very different dialects. This report is an effort to begin bridging the gap between everyday Americans' understandings of economic issues and the official economic discourse. The issues that the people and the policy makers are trying to discuss are too important for them to be talking past each other.

The book's contents include these sections:

  • It's Still "the Economy, Stupid"
  • Introduction: The great disconnect
  • Detailed Findings
    • Facing the New Economy
    • Paycheck Economics
    • Getting Ahead or Running in Place?
    • Building Wealth
    • Globalization
    • Immigration
    • Preparing for the New Economy
    • Health care
    • Representation in the Workplace
  • Conclusion
  • How to "Speak American" When You're Talking About Economics

From the Forward:

This report is based upon the findings of focus groups and national surveys that the Economic Policy Institute conducted in 2005 and 2006 under the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation's Economic Resiliency Group, as well as a study of the findings of public opinion research about American's attitudes about the economy over the past quarter century. The purpose of this research was not to take a snapshot of public opinion in 2006 but rather to paint a portrait of how Americans think about the economy, allowing for changing economic, social, and political conditions. We sought to uncover and analyze Americans' underlying attitudes about the economy -- basic ways of thinking that persist in the midst of upturns, downturns, and administrations of both major parties. Beyond the anxiety of the first half of this decade and the prosperity of the second half of the last decade, these attitudes have been more profoundly influenced by the transformative impact of what has come to be called the "New Economy" -- the new ways of working and doing business that have emerged in response to new technologies, international trade and investment, and the deregulation of many major industries.

In many important ways, the utterances of political and governmental elites on both sides of the spectrum -- conservatives and liberals -- do not reflect the ways that everyday Americans think about the economy. Most Americans tend to be simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic about the economy. Most people are pessimistic about how national economic trends are affecting people like them. They are concerned about insecurity, inequality, and the difficulty of attaining and maintaining a middle class standard of living. But, at the same time, most people are optimistic about their own economic prospects and their families' futures. They still believe that, if people study hard, work hard, and sacrifice for their families, they can achieve the American Dream.

In general, conservatives have been out of touch with American attitudes by under-estimating people's pessimism about the national economy. Meanwhile, liberals have been out of touch by under-estimating people's optimism about their own situations.

If these findings point to a new synthesis about how policy makers should talk about and act upon the economy, it is this: The nation should provide greater economic security to hard working families so that they can make the most of expanded economic opportunity. Now, as in the eras of the Homestead Act and the G.I. Bill, Americans need to stand on a solid foundation so that they can reach for their futures. Policy makers who listen to the people will best be able lead in the years ahead.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. Kusnet writes a column about political rhetoric for The New Republic's Web site, and his articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, New Republic, American Prospect, Nation, Dissent, and other newspapers and magazines. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.

Lawrence Mishel is the president of the Economic Policy Institute. He is principal author of EPI's flagship publication, The State of Working America, which provides a comprehensive overview of the U.S. labor market and living standards. He is also one of the principal authors of How Does Teacher Pay Compare? Methodological Challenges and Answers and The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement.

Ruy Teixeira is a joint fellow at the Center for American Progress and The Century Foundation and is also a fellow of the New Politics Institute. He is the author of five books, hundreds of articles, both scholarly and popular, and the monthly Web feature, What the Public Really Wants. His books have generated praise across the political spectrum and have been on both The Economist's and the Washington Post's best books of the year lists.

ISBN: 9781932066272, 1932066276
Economic Policy Institute
December 2006

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