11.12.2009 Policy Points

Public Understanding of the Economy

The ongoing recession has demonstrated the importance of public policy to the structure and operation of the American economy. Yet most Americans don’t fully understand the pivotal role that intentional policy choices in shaping economic outcomes and driving prosperity.

Over the past three years, the public policy organizations Demos and Topos have engaged in an intensive study of the American public’s understanding of  the economy and the role that government action plays in the daily functioning of the economy. In a recent research brief, the organizations laid out some key findings:

The story that Americans currently tell themselves about the economy reflects a uniquely American perspective,
and creates tremendous challenges for advocates seeking to change economic policy. This story sends the message
that economic conditions are subject to natural fluctuations much like the weather. The only influence we have on
the economy is as private, success-driven individuals who either work hard and get ahead, or don’t and fall behind.
In this story, government action is a last resort and is used only to protect the deserving and to police bad actors,
and even then it risks creating dependency and stifling business productivity.
While the research undertaken by Topos on behalf of Dēmos has uncovered deep-seated public perspectives about
the economy that hinder productive engagement in economic policy, it has also identified the core elements needed
to reshape public discourse and understanding. Those who would support a more active role for government in
a whole range of economic policies will need to carefully avoid the traps that trigger unproductive thinking while
consciously and deliberately evoking a new perspective.
Americans need to hear – and feel comfortable telling – a story that offers alternative images and understandings
that will allow them to feel competent and confident in asserting a new role for themselves as citizens and stewards
of a shared prosperity. This story must also help them see the possibility of a constructive government role that implements
policies that shape economic conditions and foster a shared prosperity.

The story that Americans currently tell themselves about the economy reflects a uniquely American perspective, and creates tremendous challenges for advocates seeking to change economic policy. This story sends the message that economic conditions are subject to natural fluctuations much like the weather. The only influence we have on the economy is as private, success-driven individuals who either work hard and get ahead, or don’t and fall behind. In this story, government action is a last resort and is used only to protect the deserving and to police bad actors, and even then it risks creating dependency and stifling business productivity.

While the research undertaken by Topos on behalf of Dēmos has uncovered deep-seated public perspectives about the economy that hinder productive engagement in economic policy, it has also identified the core elements needed to reshape public discourse and understanding. Those who would support a more active role for government in a whole range of economic policies will need to carefully avoid the traps that trigger unproductive thinking while consciously and deliberately evoking a new perspective.

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