Monthly Archives: July 2009

private opinion polls

These results from the latest New York Times survey are supposed to be evidence that “the public continues to be ill-informed and hypocritical.”

People want lower taxes, no spending cuts, and a smaller deficit. It’s like the citizen who was quoted in a newspaper many years ago saying, “It’s the government’s deficit, not ours. Why can’t they pay it off?”

Others have already made the following technical point. Few individuals in this survey probably gave inconsistent responses. The overlap between those who wanted “no new taxes” and those who opposed spending cuts may have been fairly small. It was the aggregate result that was incoherent, and that was no individual’s fault.

Which brings me to a second, more substantial point. We must aggregate public opinion to get democratic outcomes. But we can aggregate in many different ways. One of the stupidest ways would be to call people on their home phones, out of the blue, and ask them a series of abstract questions. “Do you want lower taxes, yes or no?” “Do you want service cuts, yes or no?” If you tally up the answers and call it public opinion, that is a recipe for incoherence. You will get much better results if, for example, you ask a group of people to think, talk, and develop a consensus plan.

Nina Eliasoph’s comments from Avoiding Politics (p. 18) are relevant:

    Research on inner beliefs, ideologies, and values is usually based on surveys, which ask people questions about which they may never have thought, and most likely have never discussed. … The researcher analyzing survey responses must then read political motives and understandings back into the responses, trying to reconstruct the private mental processes the interviewee ‘must have’ undergone to reach a response. That type of research would more aptly be called private opinion research, since it attempts to bypass the social nature of opinions, and tries to wrench the personally embodied, sociable display of opinions away from the opinions themselves. But in everyday life, opinions always come in a form: flippant, ironic, anxious, determined, abstractly distant, earnest, engaged, effortful. And they always come in a context–a bar, a charity group, a family, a picket–that implicitly invites or discourages debate.

In the case of the New York Times poll, the context is a very cerebral, information-rich, nonpartisan, published forum in which authors and readers are expected to think like ideal legislators and make all-things-considered judgments under realistic constraints. In that context, you look like an idiot if you call for lower taxes, more spending, and a reduced deficit. Into that august forum are dragged innocent citizens who were telephoned randomly without notice and asked to say yea or nay to a bunch of sentences. No wonder that, when their responses are tallied, they look “ill-informed and hypocritical.” I guarantee you that if the same people were told they needed to come up with a public position on the federal budget, their response would not only be better–it would have a human face and would be presented with some mix of seriousness, uncertainty, regret about difficult choices, and pride in their accomplishment.

To be sure, the poll gives meaningful information. It tells us what people want when they don’t reflect–and most of us do not reflect on national policy very often. So the opinions in the poll pose real problems for national leaders, who cannot deliver desirable outcomes that are practically incompatible. On the other hand, people rate their own understanding of national policy very poorly. They expect good leaders to make tough calls. They realize that the situation is difficult and there are no perfect answers. If you conclude from these survey results that the public is stupid and should be treated accordingly, you misread their mood and their expectations.

reforming the humanities

Last week, I submitted the copy-edited version of my next book for layout and production. It is entitled Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante Through Modern Times, and it will be published by Palgrave Macmillan this year. The first paragraph says:

    This is a book about ethics and stories. Ethics (or morality) encompasses what is right or good, what we ought to do, and how laws and institutions should be organized. I argue that a good way to make ethical judgments and decisions is to describe reality in the form of a true narrative. Fictional stories also support moral conclusions that can translate into real life. I argue that when the moral judgments supported by a good story conflict with general principles, we ought to follow the story and amend or suspend our principles, rather than the reverse. What makes a story “good” for this purpose is not its conformity to correct moral principles, but its merits as a narrative–for instance, its perceptiveness and coherence and its avoidance of cliché, sentimentality, and euphemism.

tactics, wonkery, values

Back in 2004, I wrote a long post on this blog, arguing that the problem for the left was not bad tactics, nor a lack of resources, but a lack of positive vision. This was part of the argument:

    In 2004, the most exciting new participants in the political debate have been independent bloggers. But the major bloggers on the Left—people like Josh Marshall, Calpundit’s Kevin Drum, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos—strike me as strictly tactical thinkers. That is, they assume that the goal is to defeat George W. Bush, and they look for ways to score points against him. He is hypocritical one day, misguided the next. I thoroughly agree, yet I don’t see any basis for a new direction in American politics. Their strategy is to make the president look bad, elect a replacement, and hope that he comes up with new ideas. If there are more creative leftish thinkers in the “blogosphere,” I don’t know who they are. This void suggests to me that the Left is weak today because of a lack of tough and creative thinking, not because good “progressive” ideas are being suppressed by the mass media.

My post triggered thoughtful rebuttals by Mark Schmitt, Matthew Yglesias, and others.

I remembered this exchange recently when it occurred to me that Yglesias and other skillful left-of-center bloggers have become policy wonks. I spent 15 years in a school of public policy, yet occasionally even my eyes glaze over when I read Yglesias on transportation or Ezra Klein on health care. No one could rightly say that these people lack ideas about what should be done. They are as substantive as can be–as well as talented writers.

So perhaps when the Democrats were “out,” bloggers on their side of the aisle were focused on getting them back “in”; and once Democrats won elections, the bloggers turned to policy. That would be a happy story and would make me apologize for my implication that the left blogosphere was superficial in 2004.

Except for one thing: I don’t divide politics into tactics and policy. There is a crucial third element, which is the creation of some kind of moving storyline that embodies core values. I think that’s much more important than getting one’s policy proposals right, and it was a conspicuous failure in ’04. An argument about values and a narrative arc are what Barack Obama contributed to the left in ’08. The particular positions that he took could be wrong, but in any case, they do not seem to attract much attention or support in the liberal blogosphere. For instance:

    Government cannot solve our problems; citizens must do that through their own work.

    Our relationships are broken because of excessive confrontation and distrust, and we need to work together across differences.

    We must take more moral responsibility for ourselves and our children.

deliberation and the California budget mess

A concrete proposal for a deliberative public forum made it to today’s Times op-ed page. Chris Elmendorf and Ethan J. Leib call for a “citizens assembly” that would meet when the legislature deadlocks on a budget. The California legislature needs a two-thirds vote to pass a budget and labors under many constraints created by initiatives. It has a chronic problem of failing to pass decent, reasonable budgets on time, a problem that reached a critical stage this year when the largest American state issued IOUs in lieu of real checks.

Other activists are causing for a constitutional convention–which could be called the “nuclear option” of public deliberation, because it would enlist a deliberative group in blowing up the whole constitution and starting over. The Elmendorf and Lieb proposal is much more modest. In fact, it might cause elected officials to propose moderate budgets in order to avoid a deadlock and then a loss of power to the citizen’s assembly.

I presume citizen participants would be randomly selected and paid for their time. They would consider various alternative budgets, hear from experts, talk (a lot), and decide. As a populist reform, it beats the initiative and referendum on two grounds. First, it’s deliberative–people exchange ideas and evidence before they vote. Second, the subject of deliberation is the whole budget, not an individual yes-or-no proposition like capping taxes or reducing class sizes. You’re really not acting responsibly as a participant in self-government unless you are willing to make tradeoffs.

Whatever one thinks of this particular proposal, I would argue that California’s problems are civic, not economic. Legislators could balance the budget by raising taxes and/or cutting spending; they don’t need aid from outside, which would only encourage them to continue their irresponsibility. Their civic problems lie partly in the rules of the formal political system, but another cause is a relatively weak civil society. The newspapers that cover state and metropolitan issues are inadequate, for example. Californians have plenty of civic assets, as well, but they need to mobilize them much better.

starfish stories

(Madison, WI) The original starfish story, very popular among proponents of service:

    Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf’s edge and and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.

    The man was stuck by the the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.

    As he came up to the person he said, “You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and pick up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, “It sure made a difference to that one!”

Some variants:

    1. Once a man was walking along the beach, where he saw hundreds of stranded starfish. He said, “Starfish, what are you going to do to get yourselves off this beach?” The starfish replied, “There is nothing we can do. The natural action of the waves has deposited us here. It has always been thus, and thus shall it always be.” The man said, “You are the ones you have been waiting for. Organize yourselves into a chain, pull yourselves back into the water, and then figure out a way to prevent this debacle from recurring.” The starfish felt empowered, studied engineering, organized themselves into an effective construction crew, built a breakwater, and nothing as bad ever happened again.

    2. Once on a beautiful day a man was walking along the beach when he saw another man going back and forth throwing simple echinoderms back into the ocean to save them. Over the course of a several hours, he saved about 3 percent of these brainless organisms, 47 percent of which were destined to die anyway due to their long exposure on the sand. Seagulls watched as this man reduced their main food source. Meanwhile, off in the distance, huge condos were being constructed on the fragile ecosystem thanks to lax environmental regulation. The first man, a developer, chuckled. It occurred to him that a good name for the massive casino he planned for this spot might be “The Starfish.”

    3. A man was walking down the beach, where he noticed a whole bunch of stranded starfish. He had read that starfish have market value, so he reached down to harvest one for his own profit. “Hands off, exploitative human,” said a voice, which came from the very starfish he had touched. “We are not your property and we don’t need your help getting back to the sea. We have second stomachs that can expand to engulf prey such as yourself when we are threatened. Come on, fellow asterazoa, let’s use our hydraulic vascular systems to propel ourselves back into the watery global commons whence we came.” The man watched slack-jawed as the starfish marched into the surf chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, greedy humans have to go.”

    4. A big mean shark was swimming close to the shore, eating starfish. The little creatures decided to go up onto the beach for awhile, because they can lie in the sun for a few hours without drying out, and the shark would swim away. Then a manic do-gooder started throwing them back in, one by one. Each starfish that he threw in was immediately gulped down by the ravenous leviathan. Finally, a brave little starfish reached out a foot and tripped the man, who fell face down in the surf and was immediately swallowed whole by the shark. Sated at last, it swam away to sea.