Sunday, October 23, 2011

What happened to the British working class?

The New York Times today had a piece called "The Paradox of the New Elite," which contained the following statement:  "As recently as 1988, some 67 percent of British citizens proudly identified themselves as working class. Now only 24 percent do."  I found this surprising--things like that usually change slowly.  The article linked to an article in the Guardian, which linked to a BritainThinks poll.  That was where the 24% came from.  There were some interesting things in the poll report, but at the end it said "This study draws on an online survey of 2003 UK adults. Data were demographically weighted to be representative of the UK adult population."  The combination of "online survey" and "demographically weighted" usually means that the survey organization made no attempt to get a representative sample--they just relied on people who could be enticed to their website. 

I looked at the British Social Attitudes survey, which does things the old-fashioned way (selecting people at random and contacting them).  They have the following question "Most people say they belong either to the middle class or the working class. If you had to make a choice, would you call yourself middle class or working class?"  Unfortunately, the most recent year was 2006, but then the results were 56% working class and 35% middle class.  Earlier data for the same question can be found from the British Election Studies.  They didn't ask the question in 1988 (there was no general election in Britain last year), but 55% said they were working class in 1983 and 57% said they were working class in 1987.   No change in 20 years.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Support for redistribution has plummeted (?)

A Scientific American article by Ilyana Kuziemko and Michael Norton has received a lot of attention recently.  (I read about it here).  They say that "support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession" [their italics].  They cite the a General Social Survey question:
"Some people think that the government in Washington ought to reduce the income differences between the rich and the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of wealthy families or by giving income assistanceto the poor. Others think the government should not concern itself with reducing this income difference between the rich and the poor." People can pick any number from 1 (should do something) to 7 (should not concern itself).
Kuziemko and Norton are right--the mean answer was 3.59 in 2008 and 3.95 in 2010 (higher numbers mean less support for redistribution). But their article goes on to say that this is an example of "last place aversion": basically, when times are hard, people get less generous: they get satisfaction from knowing that someone is even worse off than they are. Since the GSS goes back to the 1970s, we don't have to limit ourselves to comparing 2008 and 2010--we can look at the whole history. In that time, there is pretty much no relation between the unemployment rate and opinions about redistribution. For example, between 1980 and 1983, the unemployment rate rose from 6.3 to 10.3 percent, but people became more favorable to redistribution (3.88 to 3.73). There is one thing that predicts opinions pretty well, though: the party of the President. When there's a Democratic president, the average opinion has been 3.84; when it's a Republican, it's 3.62. What's caused support for redistribution to "plummet" isn't the recession, but the change from Bush to Obama. Although the question doesn't explicitly ask people whether the government should do more or less than it's doing now, I suspect that some people have that in mind. When the government doesn't seem to be doing much, they want more; when it seems to be doing a lot, they think it's enough or too much.   So it's unlikely that support for redistribution has changed at all in a real sense.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


In 1998 a Gallup/USA Today survey asked about whether "some practices . . . will be commonplace in the year 2025, or not?"   Then they asked "do you think that in 2025 each one will generally be legal or not legal in the United States."  One of the practices was gay marriage:  74% thought it would be commonplace and 69% that it would be legal.  In September 2004 a Los Angeles Times survey asked, "Regardless of your opinion about same-sex marriage, do you think legal recognition of it is inevitable, or not?"  59% said it was inevitable, 31% that it wasn't, and 10% didn't know. 

The sense of inevitability wasn't because most people favored same-sex marriage.  The immediately preceding question in the LA Times survey asked people about a constitutional amendment that would "prevent states from legally recognizing same-sex marriage":  51% said they would favor it, with 43% opposed.  It also doesn't seem to be because people assume all laws will become less restrictive.  When the 1998 survey asked about "illicit drug use, such as marijuana and cocaine," 64% said it would be commonplace, but only 30% said it would be legal.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I can take care of this, part 2

The question I discussed in my last post was also asked in a 1990 survey by Yankelovich and Time Magazine.  In that survey, 32% said that they could do a better job of running the country than "our government officials are currently doing," and 64% said they couldn't. 

As in the 2010 survey, men were a lot more confident than women (42% to 25%).  One thing I didn't mention in my previous post was party differences.  Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say that they could do better, but was that just because it was a Democratic administration, or is it something more general? In 1990, the President was a Republican (George H. W. Bush), so the Democrats were the "outs."  The percent saying they could do better, by party:

          Democrats   Independents      Republicans
1990     32%               36%                34%
2010     21%               49%                41%

So there seems to be a general tendency for Republicans to have a lower estimation of "our government officials" than Democrats.  But notice that the biggest difference between 1990 and 2010 is among independents.  That could mean independents really strongly the Obama administration, or (what I think is more likely) that they strongly dislike political conflict.   Disagreements between the parties are more intense now than they were in 1990, and independents may conclude that they're both to blame.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I can take care of this

In February 2010 an Opinion Research/CNN survey asked:
 "Do you think you personally could do a better job running the country than our government officials are presently doing?"

36% said yes, and 64% said no.  (Almost no one said they didn't know).   People with higher incomes were somewhat more confident about their ability to run the country--30% of those earning under $35,000 and 42% of those earning over $75,000 said they could do better than the current crew.  People with some college are the most confident--44% said yes, compared to 38% among college graduates and 30% of among people with no college.  But the biggest difference was between men and women--45% of the men said they could, compared to only 27% of the women. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The wisdom of crowds?

ABC News reports a poll showing that 55% of people expect the Republican nominee to win next year and only 37% expect Obama to win (8% don't know).  I looked for earlier questions asking people to predict races.  There were quite a few, so to narrow it down I focused on the 1948 race, when Harry Truman won even though all of the polls and pundits said he would lose.  The people didn't do any better.  In February 1947, when asked "Regardless of how you yourself feel--which party do you think will win the Presidential election next year?"  20% said the Democrats, 63% said the Republicans, and 17% didn't know.  In April 1947, the percent saying Democrats was up to 30% and the Republicans fell to 53%.  The last time it was asked (April 1948), 21% picked the Democrats and 57% picked the Republicans. 

After the election, a Roper/Fortune survey asked people who they had expected to win.  Only 19% said Truman, and 77% said Dewey.  It also asked "Before election day, who did you think most of your friends were going to vote for?"  27% said Truman, 40% Dewey, 3% Thurmond, 2% said most were undecided, 9% said evenly divided, and 19% didn't know.  So if people had made the naive assumption that the winner would be the person most of their friends were for, more of them would have predicted it correctly.

PS:  I also ran across a question from 1945 (just after the Labour Party won the election in Britain) that shows the change in political climate  over the years: 
 "Do you think a Labor Party will ever win a presidential election in this country?"  38% said yes, 37% said no, and 25 didn't know.