Nurturing new frames on the economy

Collage of government building, people walking, and construction workers with text "A philanthropy's field guide for supporting narrative change"

In the first post in this series, we laid out how Omidyar Network defines narrative change and how we’ve incorporated this important tool into our work around Reimagining Capitalism. In this piece, we will explore more deeply some of the frames that are contributing to a new economic narrative.

By Alexis Krieg

Back in 2019, Omidyar Network launched a new initiative, which we boldly called “Reimagining Capitalism.” The name itself prompted some questions at the time: What did we want to reimagine capitalism to do, exactly? Who should be doing the reimagining? And even, why bother with capitalism at all? Our CEO Mike Kubzansky addressed many of these queries in an early interview with the Chronicle of Philanthropy. To paraphrase his words, “…at Omidyar Network we believe that at the highest level, reimagining capitalism is about supplanting the economic paradigm of neoliberalism with a better, new set of ideas.”

At the time, it was obvious that cracks were showing in our current form of capitalism, with inequality soaring, growth slowing, and entrepreneurship and dynamism falling. But even as policymakers and the public began to cast around for new ideas to address these problems, few solutions seemed feasible in a hyper-partisan political climate. That all began to change after the onset of the global pandemic. As with other major crises throughout history, from the World Wars and the Great Depression to the influenza outbreak a century prior, the devastation brought on by COVID-19 also led to a major recalibration of how people thought about the problems we faced.

This mindset shift opened the door to a whole host of policy ideas, some of which had been quietly germinating for years. Many of these have since born fruit, as showcased in a flurry of bipartisan legislation passed in Congress, a renewed public interest in issues like labor organizing and care work, and regulatory and advocacy efforts to address everything from monopolies to student loan forgiveness.

The vast majority of ideas behind these policy shifts are part of a huge body of work broadly referred to as “post-neoliberalism.” Not exactly a catchy slogan, but one we can use as a container to hold a wide range of ideas, policies, and stories about how we can better design our economy to build a word that is more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable. (For those seeking a more concrete definition of all that post-neoliberalism entails, please see this excellent 2020 report from the Roosevelt Institute.)

Categorizing the many frames of the post-neoliberal narrative

Within every mega-narrative, there are often a number of directionally similar frames. Frames set the terms of a narrower debate or conversation, helping direct where people should look and interpret what they see. Some of the strongest frames that provide structural support to neoliberalism are an emphasis on free markets, a limited role for government, and an emphasis on the value of individual freedom. Frames are important because, when added together, they reinforce existing narratives. But by the same token, a new set of frames can also help build a new narrative.

There are several distinct categories of post-neoliberal frames emerging, and we’ll attempt to lay them out here: People-First, Government-Forward, and Morally-Focused. Before we get into the differences that separate them, it’s important to lay out what unites them, and all post-neoliberal frames more broadly:

  • They all center extreme economic inequality as a major social and economic challenge and offer an alternative, positive vision (in the form of stories, policies, or new ideas) for how to address it.
  • They each reimagine the balance of power between markets, government, and communities.
  • They, to varying extents, build on a new and different set of core values.

People-First frames

With People-First framing, there is still a distinct focus on markets and growth. But rather than having “the economy” be the central character in the story, the focus is on people and how the economy supports them. A strong example of this frame is “middle-out” economics, which, to quote one of its originators Nick Hanauer, is “at its core, largely a story about economic cause and effect. Middle-out argues that a large and thriving middle class is the primary cause of economic growth, not a consequence, and that the more people we fully include in the economy, the faster and more prosperous will be its growth.”

Though the term has been around for over a decade, it has found new life in recent years thanks in part to a warm embrace from the current presidential administration. Indeed, it can be hard to tell where “middle-out” ends and “Bidenomics” begins. President Biden has often deployed “middle-out” in his public remarks, and his administration has also widely adopted it. To use their framing, Bidenomics centers on three pillars: making smart public investments in America; empowering and educating workers to grow the middle class; and promoting competition to lower costs and help entrepreneurs and small businesses thrive. Each of these pillars focuses on helping people and rests on the premise that, in doing so, the economy will naturally grow as a result.

This frame lies the closest to the current neoliberal paradigm that centers individuals (pulling themselves up by their bootstraps), which explains in part why the uptake has been so seamless. Economic growth still remains an implicit goal of this framing (though the reason behind it differs from the old neoliberal story). The win-win approach still has resonance with policymakers and members of the public who want to continue prioritizing growth, but see the fruits of that labor spread more widely. In this way, these frames can be a helpful bridge away from neoliberal mindsets for a wide range of audiences.

Government-Forward frames

For Government-Forward frames, the focus shifts away from simply growing the economy at all costs to exercising the power of government to proactively shape markets. Harvard economist Dani Rodrik calls this economic paradigm “productivism,” which he describes as placing a greater role on government and civil society that, by definition, “puts less faith in markets, is suspicious of large corporations, and emphasizes production and investment over finance, and revitalizing local communities over globalization.”

This framing undergirds a larger set of wonky economic terms that are coming back into vogue, such as “industrial policy,” “modern supply-side economics,” and, more colloquially, “the new New Deal” — or, as Felicia Wong and Sabeel Rahman succinctly described in an essay for the Democracy Journal, “a government that builds.” This framing has become particularly resonant since Congress passed four major pieces of legislation dedicating more than $4 trillion in government funding to catalyze critical industries and infrastructure. These investments, which marked the most ambitious government effort in decades to shape American economic policy, represent a real shift in the status quo about the role of government in our society.

At their heart, Government-Forward frames seek to swing the pendulum away from a focus on markets as the key driver of human flourishing and toward an emphasis on the state’s role in society and our economy. The ultimate success of this frame will depend in part upon how successfully government is able to deliver on the promises it has made (often referred to in policy circles as “implementation”) in the short-term, and, in the long-term, whether the public is willing to believe a story that portrays government as the hero.

Morally-Focused frames

This set of frames are the furthest removed from neoliberal ideology and can be recognized by their emphasis on an entirely different set of moral values like human dignity, civil participation, living in harmony with nature, and achieving fairness at an individual and societal level.

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a leading proponent of this frame, describes a Wellbeing Economy as being “designed to serve people and the planet, not the other way around. Rather than treating economic growth as an end in and of itself and pursuing it at all costs, a Wellbeing Economy puts our human and planetary needs at the center of its activities, ensuring that these needs are all equally met, by default.”

In a 2018 essay for The American Prospect, scholars Darrick Hamilton, William Darity Jr., and Mark Paul took a slightly different track, riffing on President Franklin Roosevelt’s call in 1944 to expand the Bill of Rights to include economic rights in a way that would give Americans the freedom to “pursue happiness.” At the core of those proposals was a yearning to “restoreeconomic, social, psychological balance — and dignity — to the millions of Americans who have been left behind in our highly unequal economy.”

Proponents of specific policy interventions have also adopted Morally-Focused framing, as exemplified by the narrative work done by the National Domestic Workers Allianceand others to frame greater investments in the “care economy” as the key to supporting human potential and agency.

What also sets these frames apart is their lack of emphasis on markets. In most Morally-Focused frames, the economy is merely one of many tools (alongside government, local communities, and civil society) that we can use to achieve greater human flourishing. In fact, some of these frames purposely drive focus away from the economy. A 2022 report from the Metropolitan Group and the RAND Corporation noted that “a narrative centering wellbeing is distinct from efforts to advance an ‘economy for life’ or ‘wellbeing economy’ narrative, which some think tanks and academic groups are importantly using to advance a rebuilding of a broken economic system to deliver good, meaningful lives for everyone.” Instead, they center wellbeing in all its forms (social, emotional, physical, planetary, and financial) as “the ultimate goal and the definition of progress.”

While this framing is still seen by some in the United States as too far removed from the current conversation to be salient, it has begun to find a foothold with many local grassroots organizations and has certainly picked up steam globally. Scotland, Iceland, New Zealand, Wales, and Finland have all joined the Wellbeing Economy Governments Partnership. Even the OECD has published a Better Life Index, noting “there is more to life than the cold numbers of GDP and economic statistics.”

How funders can apply this taxonomy to their narrative change work

We hope this categorization of the more notable frames taking shape in the economic justice space will prove useful for our fellow funders, grantees, and other partners in the field. As with most broad categorizations, there are important caveats: First, we are still relatively early in the life cycle of economic paradigm shift, a process that often takes multiple decades. Second, this taxonomy is not strict — frames, like ideas, have a tendency to overlap with each other — nor all-encompassing. But we feel these three buckets are representative of major trends. Third, and most importantly we are not advocating that one frame or another is “right.”

Neoliberalism itself did not emerge fully baked. It was initially a set of disparate ideas championed by a hodgepodge of thinkers on the fringe of the mainstream (and its rise was funded by major philanthropists of the era). But over time, their ideas married together and their narrative calcified. Perhaps the same will be true of post-neoliberalism. All three of these frames — an emphasis on people as the true engines of our markets, a more emboldened state, and a focus on wellbeing as the ultimate goal of our economy and society — may one day emerge as the planks of post-neoliberalism.

At Omidyar Network, we believe our role as a funder is not to champion any single frame or approach, and at this stage philanthropy should aim to invest in and support all of these frames, letting many different flowers bloom. As part of our approach to narrative change work, we fund individuals and organizations that span across each of these frames. It is critical that funders who are active in the economic narrative change space have a strong sense of the available frames and a clearly defined strategy that speaks to which ones they are working to reinforce and why.

Returning to that initial interview back in 2019, our CEO Mike Kubzansky said, “we think there’s a unique role for philanthropy to play” in shifting these narratives. We believe we are at a similar moment of major paradigm shift. While the trickle-down nature of neoliberalism is drying up, the exact dimensions of post-neoliberalism are still taking root, and we can all play a role in shaping it.

In our next post, we’ll dig into a framework for exactly how philanthropy can invest to reinforce these frames with public.