Public Manipulation 101: The Heartstrings Tactic

 

Last week, NPR updated me on a no-eviction policy set forth by the Centers for Disease Control. The first time I heard about it, I was incredulous; how could the CDC make federal mandates? But NPR followed with a rationale and the caveat that renters had to “qualify,” so I calmed down a bit. The explanation is that if renters are evicted because they can’t pay their bills due to Covid, then they will move in with Grandma, Grandpa, and Great-Aunt Lucy. You’ll have more and more Americans living in packed quarters, thereby spreading the virus.

Still, this kind of control sets a terrible precedent, in my mind, of government agencies stepping out of their lanes to dictate to Americans what they must do with their property. I also think the no-eviction policy, in the guise of admirable compassion, may actually be a back door means to further control the American economy, cast property owners as villains, and increase Americans’ dependence on government to set things right. And I can’t help but point out who it was that promoted closing our economy long-term so that many of us were laid off and uncertain about how we would pay our bills. These are manipulative games on a grand scale, the economy shut down by the government, but landlords shoulder the burden if renters can’t pay their bills.

In the update, NPR interviewed a woman in Georgia who was being evicted, along with her family. Of course, her situation was legitimately awful. She and her husband had found a house they loved in a county where they wanted to live. When they couldn’t pay their rent, she appealed to the CDC policy. But a local judge would not honor it, saying the CDC did not have jurisdiction over this Georgia county and NPR interviewed the judge. What he said was coherent, but he had a Southern accent and everything. So he was probably a close-minded meanie.

This woman and her family ended up getting evicted and moved into their car for a few days until they were able to get into a motel. Thus, NPR wants me to conclude, if I care about the plight of this woman, I should support the CDC’s ability to make compassionate policy. There may be local and state organizations that want to help struggling families, but that’s beside their point. The CDC should be able to help her. Because she’s suffering right now. Wait… but what about government agencies setting policy for the whole country? How can they just do that? Isn’t that going to lead to… Never mind! Look over here at this poor lady who had to move her family into their car.

This emphasis on tangential issues, pulling our gaze away from the topic at hand with an emotional distraction, is a ploy practiced by both the left and the right. And I think it’s destructive because then we skirt the real issues and are even less informed and less able to come up with a solid policy that has a chance of solving problems. It takes only one sad story for the public to turn in their thinking card on a subject, whether it’s embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, the homeless population, funding for state programs, or any number of issues in which each side is invested. I’m not saying it’s wrong to tell a story to convince one’s audience. But first, it should not be the primary means of persuasion–that can be dangerous when we avoid exploring the whole issue and examining alternatives. And second, the story should be about the topic at hand, and not an indirectly linked event chosen to generate guilt for holding a particular point of view.

The right also uses the destructive emotional distraction when unleashing the feels is politically beneficial. When Joe Biden recently reversed the agreement on the Keystone Pipeline, the right’s reporting on social media went something like this: “Joe Biden gets into office, and right away, costs 11,000 Americans their jobs.” The job loss is a legitimate problem, perhaps part of the argument for why we should continue with the pipeline. But it should not serve as the centerpiece of the public debate. We could instead present it as Biden going back on an arrangement that would have greatly benefited us, and then mention that by the way, the price tag for this includes 11,000 jobs.

Presenting the pipeline cancelation as a job loss story keeps us from having the real discussion–why is the pipeline beneficial? Focusing on the jobs keeps us from publicly weighing out the benefits of the pipeline against the concerns of harm raised by environmentalists and Native Americans. I don’t believe conservatives promote make-work employment–where a program or effort is deemed valuable not based on whether it really contributes, but whether it will create jobs for people. But framing this story as primarily one of lost employment is making conservatives sound like they do promote jobs for jobs’ sake. Yes, these conservative memes are probably just adapting the tactics of the left (Look over there! Jobs!) to win a few disapproval ratings of Biden. But for the right, for whom logic and coherence is a strength, these tactics may help us in the battles, but they will never win the war.

Published in Domestic Policy
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  1. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    I think it’s not just a cynical reversal of the left’s claims to be helping people get jobs, it’s also a response to the left’s claim that conservatives don’t care about “regular people” and their employment. Especially in these current times when so much of the left remains intent on further restricting the economy in general and jobs in particular. Especially considering the left’s apparent belief that nobody has to work or go shopping for groceries etc, just get everything magically delivered. As if there are not even people whose jobs involve bringing things to warehouses and stores, and even those who do the home deliveries! Let alone those who PRODUCE all that stuff to begin with.

    • #1
  2. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Article 1, Sec. 10, Clause 1. The state, not the Feds, have the final say over contracts and no state may make law impairing obligations under contracts. Now, that doesn’t prevent the Marxists from going around yelling “Cancel rent!” 

    • #2
  3. DonG (2+2=5. Say it!) Coolidge
    DonG (2+2=5. Say it!)
    @DonG

    EJHill (View Comment):
    Article 1, Sec. 10, Clause 1.

    The Constitution provides boundaries for a reason.

    • #3
  4. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Among the problems with heartstrings pulling are that it often ignores other people involved in the situation and oversimplifies the circumstances. 

    In the case of the tenant hardship, what about the landlord who paid to build or to purchase the property, is responsible for repairing and maintaining the property, pays real estate taxes to the city and county, and may pay utilities. For many rental houses and small apartment buildings, that landlord may be economically very similar to the tenants – often a firefighter, teacher, construction worker, or other person with a work schedule that provides time to work on the property – for whom the property is his retirement nest egg. For rental properties owned by large corporations, such corporations have stockholders that may include retirees counting on dividends from that corporation for income.

    Currently here in Texas the media are telling heartstring pulling stories about people who are receiving extremely high utility bills for electricity used during the recent very cold week (stories of multiple thousands of dollars for a week). But it’s rarely noted that these users signed up for “market rate” utility plans that also provide very low utility bills when the market is awash in gas and oil and electricity producers are selling electricity cheaply. The fuller story is more than just some heartless utility gouging a helpless customer. 

    [I have lots of legal questions about how a medical advisory organization like the CDC gets the authority to control real estate and contracts, but that’s for a separate post.]

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    sawatdeeka: This emphasis on tangential issues–pulling our gaze away from the topic at hand with an emotional distraction–is a ploy practiced by both the left and the right. And I think it’s destructive, because then we skirt the real issues and are even less informed and less able to come up with solid policy that has a chance of solving problems.

    This approach makes it nearly impossible to focus. How is one to set priorities when every other minute a new crisis-of-the-day pops up? Who is needier? Which situation is worse? For some of us there’s a big temptation to wash our hands of all of it and just pay attention to our own lives. And that sends empathy out the door.

    • #5
  6. Fritz Coolidge
    Fritz
    @Fritz

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Article 1, Sec. 10, Clause 1. The state, not the Feds, have the final say over contracts and no state may make law impairing obligations under contracts. Now, that doesn’t prevent the Marxists from going around yelling “Cancel rent!”

    The Seattle City Council recently decreed that city supermarkets must pay workers an additional $4/hr., because covid. There are an estimated 10,000 such workers in the city. The bill was passed on a Monday and went into effect TWO days later.

    I guess some places are immune to the Constitution, not to mention dictating what supermarkets must pay directly conflicts with the carefully negotiated union contracts across all their stores. (Grocery trade groups are challenging this in court, FWIW).

    The predictable result was one chain has already announced it will shutter two stores in a few weeks, due to the extra payroll cost putting these operations underwater. When I lived in Seattle, I used to walk four blocks to do my grocery shopping at one of those being closed, as being able to walk to shop was one of the best things about that neighborhood. 

    • #6
  7. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Fritz (View Comment):

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Article 1, Sec. 10, Clause 1. The state, not the Feds, have the final say over contracts and no state may make law impairing obligations under contracts. Now, that doesn’t prevent the Marxists from going around yelling “Cancel rent!”

    The Seattle City Council recently decreed that city supermarkets must pay workers an additional $4/hr., because covid. There are an estimated 10,000 such workers in the city. The bill was passed on a Monday and went into effect TWO days later.

    I guess some places are immune to the Constitution, not to mention dictating what supermarkets must pay directly conflicts with the carefully negotiated union contracts across all their stores. (Grocery trade groups are challenging this in court, FWIW).

    The predictable result was one chain has already announced it will shutter two stores in a few weeks, due to the extra payroll cost putting these operations underwater. When I lived in Seattle, I used to walk four blocks to do my grocery shopping at one of those being closed, as being able to walk to shop was one of the best things about that neighborhood.

    Now all the City Council has to do is decree that stores can’t close! Everybody wins!

    • #7
  8. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    The NYT in particular likes to launch their news stories with a sob story. 

    What is saddening to me is that the territory between the coldest (not to mention lyingest) statistics and the Tale of That Person Who is Suffering is nearly empty, leaving the reader to paint in the details with the tears of That Person Who. 

    In the old days (under admittedly ideal circumstances) there would be a local whip round or a church collection basket to help out a neighbor. And maybe the landlord would be encouraged by social pressure to cut That Person a break. 

    But what was sometimes given freely is now to be stolen grandly; not only do we fork over taxes to help the homeless, but we force businesses to take it in the shorts to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. 

    But back to the story aspect – there isn’t a story about how the landlord is suffering because he is de facto greedy as far as too many people are concerned; he’s the bad guy, he has all the money and he should just suck it up. 

    With effort, it is possible to feel sorry for the evicted person and understand that contract law is foundational. 

    • #8
  9. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    I’ll ask the CDC if I can stop paying my mortgage, because Covid. Then I’ll ask them, once I default, if they can help me buy another house, because they’re the government, and that means compassion for the little guy.

    • #9
  10. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    I’ll ask the CDC if I can stop paying my mortgage, because Covid. Then I’ll ask them, once I default, if they can help me buy another house, because they’re the government, and that means compassion for the little guy.

    Ask them to buy an apartment building for you, so that other little guys can live there rent-free.

    • #10
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown
    @CliffordBrown

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    sawatdeeka: This emphasis on tangential issues–pulling our gaze away from the topic at hand with an emotional distraction–is a ploy practiced by both the left and the right. And I think it’s destructive, because then we skirt the real issues and are even less informed and less able to come up with solid policy that has a chance of solving problems.

    This approach makes it nearly impossible to focus. How is one to set priorities when every other minute a new crisis-of-the-day pops up? Who is needier? Which situation is worse? For some of us there’s a big temptation to wash our hands of all of it and just pay attention to our own lives. And that sends empathy out the door.

    Jobs, more specifically blue collar jobs, have been written out of supposedly serious policy “debate” between the GOPe and the Democrats for decades. So, yes, we should put the 11,000 pipeline jobs, which are manifestly not “makework,” front and center. It is no distraction. We should place that value right along side the increased environmental and human community risk of shipping oil by rail car instead of pipeline. We should set the damage to our society of stomping the government and cultural boot back on the head of those workers’ communities.

    • #11
  12. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    which are manifestly not “makework,”

    I did not claim these were “make-work.” I was saying that by not making the pipeline the main argument, we were making it appear that we wanted to save jobs without reference to the value of work being done. 

    • #12
  13. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    sawatdeeka (View Comment):

    Clifford A. Brown (View Comment):
    which are manifestly not “makework,”

    I did not claim these were “make-work.” I was saying that by not making the pipeline the main argument, we were making it appear that we wanted to save jobs without reference to the value of work being done.

    Both/and. We need multi-pronged arguments from all of our best prongers. 

    Putting 11,000 people out of work during an economic downturn is an outrage. 

    Stopping the pipeline by fiat despite contract agreements is an outrage. 

    People are literally dying in Texas for lack of power and Biden wants to prevent oil from being safely moved across America and it’s an outrage. 

    • #13
  14. David Carroll Thatcher
    David Carroll
    @DavidCarroll

    The CDC order is thoroughly tyrannical. It is outrageous that the CDC even thinks it has that authority. There are many legal and other problems with it, including criminal penalties of up to a $100,000 fine on landlords who violate it.

    Note that the Trump administration shares the blame for this, because this order extends an order issued in September 2020.

    It is time to abolish the useless CDC.

     

    • #14
  15. David Carroll Thatcher
    David Carroll
    @DavidCarroll

    The CDC is a cure worse than the disease.

    • #15