The Overton Window is a quite well known expression describing the demarcation between political/policy discussion that is and is not acceptable in mainstream discussion. Sometimes what removes your idea from the window is that, whatever policy merit it might have, it would arouse the politically powerful and so ensure that it could only be implemented by democratic politicians with a death wish. This ‘rational’ interpretation of what’s in and outside the window is the one illustrated in most of the illustrations from which I took the one immediately below. But a lot of the demarcation is much more arbitrary than that. It’s often, indeed I’d hazard the assertion that it’s mostly, just about what’s getting talked about. <MixedMetaphorAlert>So I have at least two policy horses in the race that are outside the Overton Window for the classical reason that in the order of a trillion dollars of market capitalisation of financial oligarchs would be seriously inconvenienced by them.</MixedMetaphorAlert> But other policy proposals of mine aren’t like that. They’re typically moderate, low or very low risk with high to very high potential payoffs.
So why aren’t they talked about? Well no reason really. They’re not talked about because they’re not talked about. Well they’re talked about by me. And when I give a presentation on them, people often respond as if they’re positively elevated to hear them. They complement me on how ‘lateral’ they are. Just hearing such ‘out of the box’ thinking makes them feel more innovative. They leave with a new spring in their step – they might even have scored their inspiration porn for the week. Sometimes they say I really should come and give a talk to their whole management group or some subset of it. They sometimes, though much more rarely, make that happen. And then they get back to their in-tray.
When I was working for the Business Council of Australia I once tried to sell independent fiscal policy to Australian Democrat Treasury spokesperson Andrew Murray. After my presentation he was very complimentary and asked if I couldn’t perhaps get anyone really important to publicly endorse the idea. It’s a reasonable question from him, as a person with limited expertise and resources at his command he needed to protect himself against crank proposals or proposals that earned him the ire of the powerful. I suggested he ask Ross Garnaut what he thought of the idea, but in the end Senator Murray just got back to his in-tray. And somehow most of the gatekeepers to the Overton Window don’t see it as their role to widen it in helpful ways.
They all get greater kudos for entertaining more mainstream thoughts, like “how soon should we balance the budget?”, “do we need more workplace flexibility?” or “will the RBA cut cash rates at it’s next meeting?” or that perennial “what’s the outlook for
the Tigers playing the Hawks on Saturday the economy next financial year and how does [insert important person/institution] think it will go?”. Another fave is “how can we get back to the glory days of productivity growth?” (so long as it’s a well-understood answer – like “more microeconomic reform” – which will be just like what we already know from the glory days of reform).
Those ‘out of the box’ the ideas I’ve sketched out often arise from a little reframing of an issue. So they’re not answers to well-known questions – which very often come in the form of “should we spend more or less money on” or “should we tax this or that activity more?” complete with a quick cross to the interest groups and left and right politicians who then slip into the trenches lobbing sound bites back and forth across the terrain of interests and ideologies.
Though the UK’s NESTA had agreed to publish my proposal for public private digital partnerships, two well-funded Australian think tanks turned it down, both because it wasn’t done by one of their staff. One was quite keen to run a public event on it, but balked because it was hard to say what the paper was proposing. That one floored me. It wasn’t hard to say what it was proposing at all. It was proposing a whole new repertoire by which the public sector would lend its money and other resources to allow digital private goods to be supplied as free public goods with the huge attendant productivity gains it might produce. It’s just that what it was proposing didn’t resemble what others had proposed.
So that’s the Overton Window in all its glory. But this constriction of vision is not just a negative thing – a filter that sometimes rationally, but in my experience more often mercurially and arbitrarily, prevents us having certain kinds of discussions, or getting serious about them. It’s a positive thing. The world of public policy discussion is so dominated by what Paul Krugman calls the Very Serious People, that the discourse that they generate has a maniacal momentum of its own, capable of generating deep consensus about what every sensible person thinks (even if it represents some travesty of informed opinion), and then turning on a dime in the space of a few months.
Thus the VSPs all knew that we couldn’t sit and watch the global financial system crash around us. The Great Depression had shown that it had to be saved at vast fiscal cost and the collapse should be accompanied by temporary discretionary fiscal expansion. This was quite countercultural given that macro preoccupations immediately before the GFC were focused on the threat of inflation, itself the product of a policy consensus forged from the late 1970s on. But it did have the merit of being a correct application of the economic orthodoxy of the time.
In any event, after a few years as budget deficits and debts ballooned, it turned out that the VSPs knew that this couldn’t go on. And so, curtesy of a growing sense that all sensible people realised that it couldn’t go on, (and a dodgy paper by some good economists), austerity arrived. This is the Overton Juggernaut. We avoided the worst of it in Australia because, with our economy in better shape, interest rates were well above the zero lower bound meaning that there was a plausible, orthodox case for tightening fiscal policy and further expanding monetary policy to push the economy towards full employment. But then the Overton Juggernaut exercised its own hypnotic effect on our own debate. (To be continued).