Sunday, December 28, 2014

Good and bad influences

In a recent post, I discussed a Pew survey of eight nations in 1994 that asked whether various things were good or bad influences "on the way things are going in this country" (people could volunteer "neither" or "both").  Americans were unusually positive about religion (73%-15%, more favorable than all except Mexico), computers and technology (85%-7%, also second after Mexico) and the military (71%-18%, most favorable).

Americans were unusually negative about some things:  movies (27%-54%, least favorable), rock music (21%-64%, least favorable), and TV shows (25%-53%, also least favorable).*  This is even more striking because the United States has a disproportionate influence on popular culture, so that nationalism is not a potential reason for opposition.

*in some nations, they asked about "TV variety shows," but the documentation doesn't specify which ones.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

What's a Democrat worth?

When straightening up my office at the end of the semester, I ran across a paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson that came out this summer.  It points out that since the 1940s the American economy has grown faster under Democratic presidents than under Republicans--a lot faster.   If we restrict it to the complete presidential terms in the data (starting with Truman 1949-53 and ending with Obama's first term), per-capita GDP growth has averaged  12.4% per term under Democrats and 5.7% under Republicans.  

The ranking of individual terms is shown below--the worst performance among Democrats (Obama) is almost equal to the Republican average.

*Truman          21.2%
*Kennedy/Johnson 17.4%
*Johnson         14.9%
Reagan-2         12.2%
*Clinton-2       10.7%
Nixon            10.6%
*Clinton-1       10.5%
Reagan-1         10.3%
GW Bush-1         7.4%
*Carter           6.7%
*Obama            5.5%
Nixon/Ford        4.6%
Eisenhower-2      3.4%
GHW Bush          2.8%
Eisenhower-1      2.3%
GW Bush-2        -2.4

As Blinder and Watson observe, the difference "while hardly a secret, is not nearly as widely known as it should be."   Ironically, the magnitude of the difference is probably part of the reason that it's not well known.  Given that the American economy is large and complex, and that presidents don't have total control over government policy, it's hard to believe that presidents could make this much difference.  So any reasonable person has to say that a lot of it is "luck"--growth varies in mysterious ways, and the Democrats just happened to be there when growth was stronger.  Once you've allowed a lot of it was luck, it's easy to assume that it was all luck.  So even people who know this fact don't talk about it, because they assume that it's just a fluke (that was my first thought when I encountered it in Larry Bartels's Unequal Democracy).

But this is not a reasonable conclusion.  The reasonable conclusion is a compromise--that the observed difference is partly luck and partly "real" (that is, the result of differences in economic policies). More precisely, you can obtain a Bayesian estimate by specifying a distribution that represents your prior beliefs and combining it with the evidence of the data.  For a prior, I took a normal distribution with mean 0 and standard deviation of 1.  That amounts to assuming about a 67% chance that any real effect over a term is less than 1%, 95% chance that it's less than 2%, and almost no chance (less than 1 in a billion) that it's as large as the observed difference of 6.7%.  So this distribution amounts to a strong prior belief that any difference will be small.  Since the normal distribution is symmetrical, the chance of an x% difference in favor of the Republicans is the same as the chance of an x% difference in favor of the Democrats.

Given this prior distribution, after observing the data there is about an 85% chance of a real difference in favor of the  Democrats.  The most likely value is a 0.9% difference in favor of the Democrats.  That doesn't sound like much, but for someone earning $50,000 a year, it would mean they could expect to earn about $450 more at the end of a Democrat's term than at the end of a Republican's term (and given that growth compounds, $450 a year more for the rest of their life).

On the other hand, there's a 15% chance of a real difference in favor of the Republicans--that is, that Republican policies were more effective in producing growth, but because of bad luck they ended up with worse performance.  So the data don't give a definitive answer, but if you're betting, 85% sounds pretty good.

Of course, you don't have to accept my prior distribution, but the point is that luck vs. a real difference isn't all-or-nothing choice.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Police, blacks and whites, 1981-2000

A few days ago, I saw an article that referred to a survey question on "confidence in police officers in your community to treat blacks and whites equally."  That question has been asked seven times starting in 1995, most recently in December 2014.  Among whites, confidence rose substantially between the last two times it was asked, September and December 2014, and the level of confidence in December 2014 was the highest ever.  
This led me to look for other questions on the subject--specifically, for questions about police in the country as a whole rather than your own community.  The good news is that there are some, and that they go back to 1981.  The bad news is that they stop at 2000.  The two questions that were asked multiple times:  [agree or disagree that] "these days police in most cities treat blacks as fairly as the treat whites" and "do you think the police in most big cities are generally tougher on whites than on blacks, or tougher on blacks than on whites, or do the police treat them both the same?"  I summarize the results as percent favorable (agree or treat both the same) minus unfavorable.  (The percent saying they were tougher on whites ranged from 0 to 2--I combined them with treat both the same).  

Between 1981 and 2000, there was a substantial move towards seeing treatment as less fair.  The figures are for blacks and whites combined, but given that blacks are only about 12 percent of the population, there must have been a substantial move in this direction among whites.  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Unions and Management

When looking for questions about unions, I saw one from a 1994 Pew survey:  are they "having mainly a good influence on the way things are going in this country or mainly a bad influence on the way things are going in this country."  The question was never repeated, but it was part of an eight-nation survey.  Here is a summary of the results for each country (percent positive minus percent negative).   The survey recorded opinions in former East Germany and West Germany separately, so I show them both.

Mexico           +32
E. Germany       +25
United States     +5
W. Germany        +5
Spain             +3
Britain            0
France            -3 
Canada           -17
Italy            -21

The United States is fairly favorable by international standards.  I expect that the unfavorable opinions in France and Italy were because strikes were more frequent there, and public opinion is usually negative about strikes (or any kind of disorder).  I'm not sure about Canada--I'd have to check if anything special was going on in 1994.  But American opinion being as positive as West German is a surprise.

The survey also asked the same question about other things, including business executives or management.  The results:

Mexico            +40
Canada            +27
France            +20
E. Germany        +19
W. Germany        +11
United States      +7
Britain            +5
Spain               0
Italy              -3

The United States is not unusual here:  the surprises are Canada and France.

The full report can be found at the Pew Research Center website.  It's not clear if the individual-level data have been preserved.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Overlooking the obvious-2

The title for my last post was especially appropriate, since I overlooked the obvious question about the popularity of unions.  As Andrew Gelman pointed out in a comment, the Gallup poll has asked people "Do you approve or disapprove of labor unions."  A figure can be found at the Gallup web site:  it shows a substantial decline in approval between the 1950s and late 1970s, and probably some decline between the late 1970s and now.

The question I looked at in my last post showed no clear change between 1952 and the 21st century, so I looked for additional questions on unions that covered a long period of time to see which way they pointed.    There are two questions that go back to the 1940s or 1950s--there is some variation in question wording, but they seem close enough to be roughly comparable

           Good   Bad   DK 
Taking it all in all, would you say unions are a good thing for the country, or a bad thing?
1945   75%   14%   11%  
And, do you think labor unions are good for the general public, or not?
1986   44%   46%   10%
Just in general, do you think labor unions today are good for America or bad for America?
1997   49%   34%  17%
2001   49%   32%  19%
2009   43%   46%  11%

          Agree   Disagree        DK 
Labor unions are very necessary to protect the workingman
1959   73%        15%             11%
Labor unions are necessary to protect the working person
1987   67%        27%               6%
1988   69%        26%               5%
1990   71%        25%               4%
1997   70%        27%               3%
1998   69%        30%               1%
1999   70%        25%               5%
2002   71%        26%               3%
2003   74%        23%               3%
2006   68%        28%               6%
2009   61%        34%               5%
2012   63%        32%               5%

There are also a substantial number of questions asking if people are favorable or unfavorable, but they don't start until the 1985.  I would characterize them as showing some increase in favorable views from the 1980s to the early 2000s and some decline since then, with no definite trend over the whole.  

Putting it together, it seems like there was a substantial decline in support for unions between the 1950s and the 1970s/1980s, some increase until the early 2000s, and some decline more recently.  Returning to my original question of whether unions are popular or unpopular, I'd still say that opinions are somewhat favorable, although not strongly so.

[Data from iPOLL, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Overlooking the obvious

Since the midterm elections, there have been a number of stories about "What 'big thing' would reinvigorate the Democratic Party?" to quote the title of one of them.   There seems to be agreement that the problem is that middle-class and working-class incomes haven't been rising, but in the stories I've read no one has raised what seems like an obvious idea:  making it easier for workers to unionize (although Thomas Edsall hints at it).  Back when unions mattered, there was a good deal of research on the "union wage effect," and the consensus was that they raised wages by something like 20% on the average (more for low paid workers and less for high paid workers).  So unionization would help address the problem, and do it  without requiring taxes or spending.  

Is the lack of attention because unions have become so unpopular that it's not worth raising the issue?  In 1952, the Gallup poll asked " In the labor disputes of the last two or three years, have your sympathies--in general--been on the side of the unions or on the side of the companies?" a number of times.  After a long gap, the question was revived in 1999, and was also asked in 2002, 2005, and 2011.  Each time, a plurality said unions--the margin ranged from 3 (37% to 34%) to 18 (52%-34%) percentage points.  The average margin was 9.7% in 1952 and 10.5% in 1999-2011--the difference is not close to being statistically significant.  (There are some ups and downs, but they have no obvious pattern, so I don't show the graph).  So it seems like a pro-union effort would have a reasonable prospect of being popular with the public. 

[data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, November 22, 2014


A recent  piece in the New York Times Jason Weeden and Robert Kuzban tells us that self-interest influences political views.  Along with some uncontroversial examples, there was one that caught my attention:
"Those who do best under meritocracy — people who have a lot of education and excel on tests — are far more likely to want to reduce group-based preferences, like affirmative action."  This didn't sound right to me:  if it were true, universities, especially elite universities, would be centers of opposition to affirmative action.  

Since "affirmative action" can mean a different things to different people, I looked for questions that asked directly about test scores.  There were't many, but I found one in a CBS News/60 Minutes/Vanity Fair survey from 2013.   It asked "Which phrase comes closest to how you would describe the SAT tests that are used for college admissions in the United States:  a successful equalizer, a failed ideal, a waste of time, or a necessary evil"?  The first answer can be regarded as positive, the second and third as negative, and the last one as neutral.  Using this classification, here is the breakdown by education:

                     Pos        Neg    Pos-Neg
less than HS          33   43   23     +10
HS                    25   40   35     -10
Some college          22   44   34     -12
College graduate      21   48   31     -10
Grad School           17   44   39     -22

So people without a high school degree have the most favorable opinions, and people with graduate education are the least favorable.  You get a similar pattern with income:  people with incomes under $30,000 are the most favorable and those with incomes of over $250,000 (admittedly a small group) are most unfavorable.  

Of course, the general point that a lot of opinions have a straightforward relation to self-interest is valid, but as this example shows, there are exceptions.

PS:  I promised an examination of own vote vs. predicted winner in my last post.  Own vote predicted 31 states correctly (that is, there were 31 states in which a majority of the sample said they would vote for X and X won), while the predicted winner actually won in 29 states.  So it was a slight advantage for own vote, but not decisive.    

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, November 17, 2014

Post-election coverage

After the election, Justin Wolfers wrote a column saying that questions about who people expected to win were better predictors of election outcomes than questions about who people intended to vote for.  He offered this explanation:  "Asking voters about their expectations allows them to reflect on everything they know about the race — which way they currently intend to vote, how likely they are to vote, whether they’re persuadable, the voting intentions of their friends and neighbors, and their observations about bumper stickers, yard signs, the resonance of a candidate’s message and the momentum they sense in their communities."

You can see how this explanation would appeal to an economist, because it's a parallel to the way that markets work:  combining scattered information in an optimal (or more realistically, pretty good) fashion.  But there's another possibility:  that voters are reflecting what the "experts" are saying, rather than information they have from their own lives.  Even if they're not paying close attention to the campaign, voters are likely to get a sense of what "everybody thinks" will happen.  In 2014, this would mean good predictions, because all the experts were saying that the Republicans would win big, while the polls left more doubt.  But there have been other campaigns in which the the experts were wrong, notably 1948.  Wolfers's explanation says that voters would have called that one correctly, or at least come close.

Did they?  In late September 1948, a Gallup poll asked "regardless of how you, yourself, plan to vote, which candidate do you think will carry this state:  Truman, Dewey, or Wallace?"  25% said Truman, 56% said Dewey, 15% don't know, and the rest Wallace or someone else (presumably Thurmond, who did carry several states in the South).  Of course, the polls were famously wrong in that year, but the survey also asked who they would vote for:  it was 46% for Dewey, 40% for Truman, 4% Wallace, 2% Thurmond.  Given that it was not a large margin for Dewey, it seems like voters' own stated preferences might have been better predictors of how their state would go.  Gallup did record state, so that could be checked, and I will do that in a later post.

PS:  After the election, only 19% said they had expected Truman to win.  

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

That man in Hartford

I get most of my election coverage from the NY Times.  It occurred to me the other day that I hadn't read much about the race for Connecticut governor, even though the Times has a lot of readers here and it was expected to be close.  I'm not sure, but I suspect that media coverage has shifted towards national politics over the years, and I wondered if that was reflected in a decline of knowledge of state politics in the general public.  There have been occasional survey question over the years on whether people could name the governor of their state.  The results:

Now that's what I call a trend.  I think that knowledge of basic facts about national politics has been stable or declined slightly, but nothing like this.

[Source:  Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Do you believe?

Since 1985, a number of surveys (first by the Times-Mirror Corporation and later by Pew) have asked "How would you rate the believability of _____ on this scale of 1 to 4?"  The scale goes from 4 ("believe all or most of what they say" to 1 ("believe nothing").  I picked four publications:  the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time Magazine, and the New York Times, and summarized the results by the logarithm of positive (3 or 4) divided by negative (1 or 2).*

The obvious point is that ratings of the believability of all have declined.  Two other points that I'm not sure of, but are interesting possibilities:

1.  In 1985, the Wall Street Journal and Time were rated much higher than USA Today.  In the last ten years, there's been little difference among them--that is, the ones that started higher declined faster (unfortunately they didn't ask about the New York Times until 2004).

2.  The decline is pretty well approximated by a linear trend.  However, it also seems like there was an additional fall between 2002 and 2004 from which they haven't recovered.  It seems reasonable that some people would have felt they were misled after the Iraq war didn't go as smoothly as promised--and even though government officials were the original source of the misleading information, it the "believability" of news outlets would suffer.  

*In retrospect, I should have just taken the averages on the four point scale, but for reasons that I have forgotten I started by collapsing the scores into two groups.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Missing Right-of-Center Museum Goers

Ross Douthat had a post on "The Missing Right-of-center Media" in which he noted that "outlets that mix political and cultural coverage" had liberal readerships; the other side, which he didn't say explicitly, was that outlets with conservative readerships were pretty much exclusively focused on politics.  His proposed explanation is that "well-educated and well-informed conservatives are often businessmen (note the Wall Street Journal’s near-center position) whose reading interests are more practical and professional, who don’t cultivate a member-of-the-intelligentsia self-image, and who treat their media consumption mostly as a source of information rather than identity."
But political news and opinion is of no more practical value than cultural coverage (arguably less), so his explanation implies that there wouldn't be a significant audience for conservative political media, which there obviously is.   It seems to me that there are two possible explanations.

One is historical:  the "old media" model was to cover a range of topics, and most of the surviving "old media" have become politically liberal (the Wall St. Journal is an exception).  So they have a mostly liberal but ideologically mixed readership (in the case of the WSJ, mostly conservative but mixed)--some who read them mostly for the political coverage, but others who don't agree with their politics but read them for other features.  The "new media" model is to focus on one thing, and a number of conservative outlets have appeared to supply the demand.  They have an overwhelmingly conservative audience.

The other is that it reflects demand:   liberals like cultural coverage more than conservatives do.  Douthat says something like this, although in pejorative terms--the "liberal clerisy" likes to "cultivate a member-of-the-intelligentsia self-image." Of course, if there is a difference of this kind, you could explain in a way that's favorable to liberals, or take the sensible course and say that you don't know why it exists.

There are a few surveys that have asked about interest in "cultural" things.  One of them is a Pew survey from 2005, which asks people if they have visited the following in the last 12 months:
an art museum; a science or technology museum; a zoo or aquarium; a planetarium; a natural history museum; a public library.  Unfortunately, the only questions on political views are ideological self-rating (liberal... conservative) and party identification.  However, liberals are more likely to say that they have visited each one of those institutions.  The differences for science and technology museums are not statistically significant, but all of the others are, most by a comfortable margin.  The differences remain after controlling for education.  There is little or no difference by party identification.

As I've said in several posts, a lot of people don't seem to understand the terms "liberal" and "conservative," or to understand them in non-political ways.  But the relationships are so strong that it seems likely that liberals really are more interested in "culture."

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, October 20, 2014

Earthquakes and inflation

In November 2010, an open letter to Ben Bernanke warned that quantitative easing would "risk currency debasement and inflation."  Inflation was running at an annual rate about 2% then, and is still about 2%.  A recent Bloomberg news story found that none of the signers of the letter said they had changed their mind:  9 stood by the letter, 13 didn't respond, and one had died.  The basic defense (among those who had a more or less coherent response) was that the letter just said that it was a risk, not a certainty.  Cliff Asness, who didn't respond to the Bloomberg reporters but later posted a reply, puts it this way: "if you believe the risk of an earthquake is 10 times normal, but 10 times normal is still not a high probability, it's rational to warn of this risk, even if the chance such devastation occurs is still low and you'll look foolish to some when it, in all likelihood, doesn't happen."

I was struck by the earthquake analogy, which I've seen before in discussions of inflation.  Earthquakes are sudden--you go from nothing to a disaster in a matter of minutes.  Another image that frequently comes up is "playing with fire," which is the same idea--it can suddenly go from apparently safely under control to completely out of control.  Is inflation really like that?

I  took annual data on inflation in 40 countries since 1950 (from the OECD) and divided it into six categories:  deflation, low (0-3%), medium (3-6%), fairly high (6-10%), high (10-20%), and very high (20+%).  My question was how often countries had gone from low to high inflation in the space of a year.  There were 574 nation-years with low inflation.  Of those, 5 were followed by a year of fairly high inflation, 3 by a year of high inflation, and none by a year of very high inflation.

The cases of a "jump":

Year 0    Year 1
2.9%        13.3%    India 1963-4 
3.0%        10.6%   Norway 1969-70
2.7%         10.5%   Canada  1950-51
2.7 %          7.0%   Sweden 1969-70
2.7%           6.5%   Finland  1970-1
3.0%           6.3%  Czech Rep. 2007-8
2.5%            6.3%  Indian 1978-9
2.8%            6.1%   New Zealand 1966-7

Six of those cases occurred in small nations and two in India, which I'm guessing did not have well developed institutions for economic management.  None occurred in the major economic powers.  France almost made the list, going from 3.1% in 1957 to 15.3% in 1958 (that was the year of the collapse of the 4th Republic).

So if there is a theory implying that quantitative easing created a substantial but not overwhelming probability (say 20% for each year the policy was followed) of a jump in inflation, it's not refuted by the experience of the last four years.  But a theory like that wouldn't fit the behavior of inflation in the past, in which jumps from low to high inflation are rare.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

College and class

There have been a lot of articles lately about how students from working-class backgrounds are under-represented in American colleges and universities.  Most of them imply that this is to some extent new--that colleges used to be more inclusive.  The Roper organization did a survey of college students in 1949 which sheds some light on this issue.  It asked students about their father's occupation, using a fairly detailed classification.  Other Roper surveys of the general public taken at about the same time used the same classification, so you can compare the fathers to the general public:

                                                                                                 Students' Fathers
                          Public     Veterans  Non-vets
Professional               5.2%       12.4%     19.3%
Salaried-executive        10.7%       13.7%     18.5%
Proprietor-other          11.9%       15.3%     18.4%
Salaried-minor            10.4%       12.7%     15.3%
Proprietor-farm            5.1%        3.9%      5.4%

Wages-other                18.2%      11.7%      8.2%
Wages-factory              20.9%       8.3%      4.5%
Wages-farm                  6.1%       0.2%      0.4%

Students from middle-class (especially professional) backgrounds were substantially over-represented, but there was a difference between students who were veterans and those who weren't.   For example, among non-veterans, those whose fathers were professionals outnumbered those whose fathers were factory workers by more than 4:1; among students who were veterans, the ratio was less than 1.5:1.  Apparently the GI Bill of Rights had a big impact.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The 14 percent

In sportscasters' language, opponents of the Washington Redskins name have been moving the ball at will recently.  This isn't because of overwhelming public support.  In 1992, an ABC News/Washington Post poll asked:  "Some people say that the Washington Redskins should change its team name because it is offensive to native American Indians. Others say the name is not intended to be offensive, and should not be changed. What about you: Should the Redskins change their team name, or not?"  The same question was also asked in 2013 and 2014 in an Associated Press/Gfk poll.  The results:

            Should            Should Not
1992        7%                  89%
2013      11%                  79%
2014      14%                  83%

Although support for a name change is growing, it's still a pretty small minority.  What sort of people support a name change?  Unfortunately, the individual-level data for the 2013 and 2014 surveys are not available, but a 2010 Vanity Fair/CBS News poll asked a similar question:  "The University of North Dakota has just retired its mascot, the Fighting Sioux, on the grounds that it gives offense to Native Americans.  What should happen to other Native American references that are common in sports, such as the Washington Redskins and the Atlanta Braves?...Do you think they should be retired because they are offensive to Native Americans, or should they be kept because this kind of political correctness has gone too far?"  12% said that the names should be retired and 78% said that they should not.

Party identification and self-rated political ideology made a substantial difference:  about 20% of Democrats and liberals, and only 6 or 7 percent of Republicans and conservatives supported a name change.  Age made a difference:  people 18-29 were more likely to support a change.  So did education:  people with graduate degrees were more likely to support a change.  So did ethnicity:  blacks, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans were all more likely to support a change.  Region didn't make much difference--southerners were a bit less likely to support a change, but there were no clear differences between the Northeast, Midwest, and West.  Income didn't make much difference, either.  However, people living in cities were more likely to support a name change.

Putting it together, Washington DC has the demographics that would maximize support for a change.  I suspect that another factor is that the team has been generally disappointing for a long time.

[data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

beautiful hypothesis vs. ugly fact

I followed up my last post by looking at the correlation between perceived corruption in 2006 and opinions on whether politics played a part in the administration of relief in 1937.  My idea was that states would have an enduring political culture, so that the ones that were corrupt (or perceived that way) in 1937 would still be in 2006.  The correlation between the scores at the different times was .05, with a p-value of .75.  The means are from samples, pretty small samples in many cases, but when you start from that near zero, correcting for sampling error won't make much difference.

Then it occurred to me that the alleged role of politics in the administration of relief was a Republican issue in the late 1930s, so you should control for the political inclinations of the states.  I regressed 1937 perceptions on vote for Roosevelt in 1936 and perceived corruption in 2006.  This produced an R-square of 0.3 and an adjusted R-square of zero.  It's not looking good for my hypothesis.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


As I mentioned in a post a couple of years ago, I have looked for data on perceived corruption in the different states of the US, but have found very little.  One of the few is an ABC News/Washington Post Poll from 2006, which asked "if you think it occurs at all, do you think corruption in *** is limited to a few corrupt individuals or is widespread?"  There were two questions, one in which *** was "the local government in your area" and the other in which it was "your state government."  I added them together to get an index of perceived corruption.*  The rankings, from most to least perceived corruption:

New Jersey


New Hampshire
N. Dakota
S. Dakota

The samples for many of the individual states are small, so there's a lot of random error, but the differences are statistically significant (p=.005) and the general pattern seems reasonable.  My earlier post looked at rankings on a question of how large a part politics played in the handling of relief in your community from the late 1930s, raising the question of whether the two rankings are correlated.

*There was a category for "neither/none (volunteered)", but it was very small.  I treated it as missing, because I wasn't sure if "neither" should be interpreted as "none are corrupt" or "don't know."

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Libertarian Populism?

In 1986, an NBC.News/Wall St. Journal poll asked "Do you think Congress should pass legislation limiting the amount of interest credit card companies can charge, even if that means it would be much harder for people like you to get credit?"  73% said yes, 20% said no, and 6% didn't know.

I looked at the relation of opinions to a number of demographic factors.  The only ones that made a significant difference were education and age:  more educated people and younger people were more likely to oppose a limit.*

Why am I writing about a forgotten issue from almost 30 years ago?  A number of conservatives, notably Ross Douthat, have been making a case for "libertarian populism."  The idea is that programs that are supposed to help the working and middle class usually get "captured" by well-connected interest groups.  As a result, they wind up helping the rich, or maybe a minority the middle class (e. g., those notorious unionized public sector workers), while reducing opportunity for most of the working and middle classes.  So the best way to help the working and middle classes is to rely on competition and markets.  Setting aside the merits of the idea, I have been interested in whether it can be populist and have been looking for potentially relevant questions.  There aren't many, but this one is of interest as a good measure of belief in the market.

There are a lot of issues on which you can make arguments for regulation based on bilateral monopoly or asymmetric information, but this isn't one of them.  There are a lot of credit cards offering different terms (and there were even in 1986), there's no long-term commitment, and the idea of a higher interest rate is pretty easy to grasp.  So the only justifications for government action are paternalism--the idea that some people won't be able to make good decisions--or just not believing that markets work.

But even though the question has a clear statement of the argument against regulation, the great majority of the public supports it.  Also, the people who are least likely to favor limits are not those who are at greatest risk of losing access to credit, but those who have been exposed to the influence of higher education.

Things may have changed since 1986, but I doubt it.  The free-market argument rests on a paradox, so it's most likely to appeal to intellectuals, or at least those who've been exposed to the influence of intellectuals.  (See this previous post for more information pointing in that direction).

*The survey also asked people if they had a credit card.  Among those who did, education influenced opinions but age didn't seem to matter; among those who didn't, age influenced opinions but education didn't seem to matter.  I can't think of a good explanation for this pattern.

[Data Source:  Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Benign neglect?

Between 1976 and 1978, a question whether "the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities" was asked eight times.  Then there was a long gap, before a question whether "over the past couple of decades, the government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities" appeared once in 2010 and twice in 2012.  The average results:

                     Agree            Disagree          DK
1970s              43%                47%              10%
2010s              36%                61%                6%

The difference is highly significant, with a t-ratio of over 5.

[Source:  iPOLL, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Not getting it

Do whites think they they face more discrimination than blacks do, as Nicholas Kristof says?  Since the late 1970s, there have been a number of questions by different survey organizations about what would be likely to happen if there were equally qualified black and white applicants for the same job.

"Suppose a black and white person of equal intelligence and skill apply for the same kind of job here in this area.  Which one do you think would have a better chance of being hired, or do you think they would both have an equal chance?"

            Black     White     Same   Depends  
1978    29%         29%       27%      9%
1983    20%         35%       29%    12%

"Suppose a black and a white were competing for the same job and both were equally qualified.  Generally, do you think the black applicant will be more or less likely to be hired?"
             More    Less   No diff.
1988     33%      47%      14%

"Suppose a black and a white were competing for the same job and both were equally qualified.  Generally, do you think the black applicant will be more or less likely to be hired?"

           More       Less          No diff.
1991    32%         50%          9%

"If a black person and a white person were competing for the same job, and both were equally qualified, who do you think would be more likely to be hired?"

            Black   White       No opinion
1996      22%        46%         32%

"In the average US company when a black person and a white person compete for the same job and they both have the exact same qualifications--the only difference is their race--what do you think usually happens?  Do you think the black person gets hired, or do you think the white person gets hired?"

             Black   White       Same    Depends
1997      19%        47%        5%      16%

After 1997, remarkably, there were no more questions.  Despite the changes in question wording, there seems to be a clear trend.  In 1978, 29% said that the black applicant had a better chance and 29% said the white applicant had a better chance. After that, opinion shifted steadily towards thinking the white applicant had a better chance.  These figures include both blacks and whites, but given the relative numbers in the population and the likely distribution of black opinions, almost all of the change must have been due to change of opinions among whites.

It's possible that opinions have swung in the other direction since 1997, but I don't see any evidence of that.  So whites may not recognize racial discrimination to the extent that Nicholas Kristof would like, but they are becoming more aware of it.  Paul Krugman has often noted (correctly, I think) that when talking about economics, conservatives seem to think that it's still the 1970s.   There seems to be a parallel among liberals when talking about white views of race:  they don't realize that quite a bit has changed.

[data from iPOLL, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

More things I've written about before

In June, I wrote about the minimum wage, and mentioned that I'd found only one survey that offered people the option of saying it should be reduced.  I recently found another, very recent, example:  a survey sponsored by United Technologies and the Congressional Journal in December 2013 asked:  "the federal minimum wage is now $7.25.  Do you think the federal minimum wage should be raised, lowered, or should it stay the same?"   71% said raised, 2% said lowered, and 25% said stay the same.   The report also broke responses down by a number of characteristics.  Who was more likely to say that it should be reduced?  More affluent people, men, and people with more education.  Independents were the most likely to say that it should be reduced (4%, compared to 2% of Republicans and 1% of Democrats).  The difference I find most interesting is education.   The people who are most likely to take a consistent laissez-faire position are the "intellectuals"--the very people that supporters of laissez-faire like to see as their enemy.  This is just one survey question, but I've seen the same pattern often enough to be pretty sure that it's real.

The other day, Nicholas Kristof had a column about racial inequality.  It was mostly about objective differences, but he started by saying that "a 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts found that whites, on average, believed that anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism."  A note in the study says that the sample was "randomly selected from a panel of 2.5 million respondents." That raises the question of whether the panel is representative of the American population--there are many groups of 2.5 million that aren't.    One survey of the whole American population is discussed in this post.  People were asked about how much discrimination there was against seventeen groups:  whites ranked last (least discrimination against) while blacks ranked fourth.  There are other questions on the topic, which I'll consider in a future post.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Attention must be paid

A few days ago, the Public Editor of the New York Times reported on a study done by Jack Fischer, a student at Binghamton University.  The basic conclusion of the study was that public universities got less coverage in the Times than private universities, controlling for other factors that could be expected to affect coverage.  In reading the story, I was struck by the list of other factors:  "The Times gives more coverage to colleges and universities that are highly ranked, larger, more liberal, and closer to New York.  That's probably not surprising, but after controlling for those factors....."  Size, distance from New York, and rankings [presumably US News] seem like good controls, but liberalism?*  If you think of the control variables as representing the coverage that different institutions "deserve," it certainly doesn't belong.  If you just think of other things that might affect coverage, I could see it as making some difference, but not as likely to be among the top factors.  However, there is something going on:  if you regress the logarithm of the number of articles on rankings, number of students, distance from New York (all logged), public/private, and the political rating, the t-ratio for college liberalism is 4.6.

So I added some other control variables.  The obvious one was research quality.  Presumably top research universities will be disproportionately represented in stories that report research finding or the opinions of "experts."    There are good, although somewhat dated, measures of perceived research quality from a survey of graduate departments conducted by the National Research Council in the mid-1990s.  H. J. Newton, a professor of statistics at Texas A & M, computed university averages, which are given here.**

Next I looked at the residuals from a regression of articles on rankings, size, distance from NYC, public/private, and graduate program rating.  The largest positive residuals were for American, NYU, Georgetown, Fordham, and Berkeley.  The largest negative ones were for Rochester, Worcester Polytechnic, Stevens Institute of Technology, Renssalaer Polytechnic, Purdue, and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

The residuals suggest two things:  first, that distance from New York isn't an adequate measure of the Times's geographical focus; second, that it gives less attention to technical universities.  So I added two variables:  one for location in the northeast corridor (Washington to Boston) or on the West coast, and the other for technical universities.  I defined both narrowly to minimize the chance of biasing things towards my expectations.  For example, my definition of technical schools included only places called "Polytechnic," "Institute of Technology," or mentioning a specific application (mines or forestry).  The estimated effects of both variables on coverage are highly significant, and when you include the political rating the estimate is considerably smaller than it had been and no longer statistically significant.  The reason that the controls matter is that the universities which are rated as more liberal tend to be on the coasts or to have highly-ranked graduate programs.

This doesn't overturn Fischer's basic finding:  with the new controls, the public/private difference is smaller but still statistically significant.

*The rating is from an organization called College Prowler.  I couldn't find much information on it, but it seems to be derived from surveys of students who signed up on their website.
**The NRC did another round of ranking in 2010, but they changed the methodology, and the resulting rankings were widely and deservedly regarded as essentially worthless.

Monday, August 25, 2014

I said it before

A little over a year ago, I had a post inspired by a New York Times story that referred to some research sponsored by Dove finding that only 4% of women considered themselves to be beautiful.  The Times recently had another story which referred to the same study:   "a mere 12 percent of women are satisfied by their looks and only 2 percent think of themselves as beautiful."  Neither story gave a link to the Dove study, but a 1999 Gallup poll did ask people to rate their physical appearance.  As I mention in that post, it's true that only 4% of women rate themselves as beautiful, but 40% say they are "attractive" and 53% say "average," leaving only 3% at "below average" or "unattractive."  Also, 66% of women said they were "generally pleased with the way your body looks."

While checking to see if I'd missed any other relevant questions, I found a 2000 Gallup survey with a question very close to one asked back in 1950 and discussed in this post:  "If you were a young man and looking for a bride, which would you prefer--a young woman who is very pretty or a young woman who is not pretty but has a lot of money."  The 1950 asked the question of both men and women--the 2000 survey asked only men.   Women in 2000 were asked if they were a young woman looking for a husband and had to choose between a handsome man and a man with money.  That's a substantially different question, so I limit the comparison to men.  

Comparing men's opinions in 1950 and 2000:

        Pretty  Money   Other
1950     34%     24%     42%
2000     60%     24%     16%

That's a big change.  The obvious explanation would be increased affluence--if you don't have to worry about making ends meet, you are less likely to focus on money.  Breaking 2000 opinions down by income:

                Pretty  Money Other
Under 20,000      46%    37%    17%
20-30,000         69%    21%    10%
30-50,000         59%    20%    21%
50-75,000         69%    23%     8%
over 75,000       56%    25%    19%

People with incomes below $20,000 per year are more likely to choose money, but beyond that income doesn't seem to matter.  I also considered education, but that had no clear connection to opinions (people with more education might have been a bit more likely to choose "other").  So the historical change seems to represent some kind of cultural shift, not a direct result of increased affluence and education.   If I find any more questions involving choices between money and other considerations I'll discuss them in a later post.  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Antisemitism and the bien-pensant European Left

Following up on my last post, here are differences in the percent agreeing that "Jews exert too much influence on world events" by political party preference (in France):

Extreme left       40%
Communist        31%
Socialist             31%
Green                19%
Right                  34%
Nationalist          64%
No Preference    35%

Two differences stand out as large (and are statistically significant):  supporters of the nationalist right (the National Front and National Republican Party)  are more likely to agree and supporters of one of the green/ecology parties are less likely to agree.  Aside from that, there are no differences that aren't well within the range that could result from chance.

I look at France for two reasons:  there are lots of parties to choose from, so you can distinguish different kinds of lefts and rights, and the party differences in opinion are larger in France than in the other countries.  By and large, there was no clear difference between left and right.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Antisemitism in Europe?

The New York Times recently had a  news story and a Sunday review piece by Roger Cohen on antisemitism in Europe.  I remember seeing stories like this from time to time, but I don't recall any of them citing survey data, even though it's the sort of thing you could certainly take a survey on.  I looked an found a survey sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres in Austria, France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, the UK, and the United States.  It was mostly about knowledge and beliefs about the Holocaust, but had a couple of questions that are pretty straightforward measures of antisemitism:  agreement or disagreement with the statements "Jews are exploiting memory of the Nazi extermination of the Jews for their own purposes" and "Now, as in the past, Jews exert too much influence on world events."  The percent who agree or strongly agree (of those who have an opinion) for the nations:

             Exploiting       Influence
UK              27%                32%
US              27%                33%
Sweden          37%                30%
France          33%                38%
Germany         46%                40%
Austria         45%                47%
Poland          52%                60%

Speaking of "Europe" in general is misleading--opinions in Britain are no different from the US, and those in Sweden and France are not much different.  But negative views of Jews are a lot more common in Austria, German, and especially Poland.

The stories also suggested that that there was a difference in the social bases of antisemitism--that it was found among educated people or what Cohen called the "bien-pensant European left."  If we limit it to college graduates (or the equivalent):

                Exploiting       Influence
US               22%                24%
France           31%                16%
UK               25%                23%
Sweden           31%                29%
Austria          36%                33%
Germany          50%                31%
Poland           48%                49%

Compared to the average person, collage graduates are somewhat less likely to have unfavorable attitudes in all nations.  There's one case in which the are more likely to have unfavorable attitudes (Germany and exploiting the memory) and one in which they are substantially less likely (France and influence on foreign affairs).

The survey also has data on party preference, but that will take more effort to sort out, so I'll leave it for another post.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, August 4, 2014

Gender stereotypes

The survey discussed in my last post also included a question:  "suppose you could only have one child.  Would you prefer that it be a boy or a girl?"  Opinions about which sex is more courageous, intelligent, and creative help to predict preference.  Putting that together with the questions discussed in my last post, intelligence and courage seem to be the most generally valued qualities:  the predict preference in children, bosses, and views about women in politics.  What predicts opinion about which sex is more intelligence and courageous?  I tried a few standard variables.

Gender:  women tend to be more favorable about women (for example, 43% of women think women are more intelligent, and only 14% think men are more intelligent, with the rest saying no difference; among men,opinions are split 29%-29%).

Education:  no effect on opinions about which sex is more intelligent; more educated people less likely to think men are more courageous.

Age:  not much difference; people aged 18-29 are less likely to say "no difference"

Political views:  liberals have more favorable views of women.

I thought that there might be some tendency for younger people, more educated people, and liberals to say "no difference," whether because of egalitarianism or "political correctness."  But that wasn't the case--in fact, younger people were less likely to say that there was no difference.  As I discussed in a post a few years ago, people seem just as willing to offer generalizations about gender differences as they were 50+ years ago, although the content of those generalizations has changed.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Who's talking?

I remember hearing about some study finding that women spoke an average of 20,000 words per day while men spoke only 7,000.  It's hard to get an accurate count of something like that, so I figured it was based on a small non-representative sample.  According to a recent story in the New York Times, it probably wasn't based on any kind of sample:  it seems that the numbers were just invented.

The story went on to suggest that "this stereotype may dovetail with the idea that what women have to say isn’t important — that it’s 'fluff,' and that "such sterotypes [may] make women less likely to speak up, or men less likely to hear them..."  I had a different impression--that it was associated with the idea that women had more "emotional intelligence" than men.  A 2000 Gallup survey contains has some relevant information.  It listed a number of characteristics and asked if each was "generally more true of men or more true of women" (people could volunteer that there was no difference).  It also asked if "the country would be governed better or governed worse if more women were in political office" and "if you were taking a new job and had your choice of a boss would you prefer to work for a man or a woman?"  The characteristics were:  aggressive, emotional, talkative, intelligent, courageous, patient, creative, ambitious, easy-going, and affectionate.  77% say women are more talkative, 11% say men, and 10% say no difference, which is about the same as when the question was first asked in the 1940s.

Opinions about which sex is more intelligent, courageous, and patient help to predict opinions about whether more women in office would mean better or worse government.  Opinions about which sex is more intelligent, courageous, and easy-going help to predict preferences about a man or woman as boss.  That is, people who see women as more intelligent, courageous, patient, or easy-going are more likely to think that the country would be governed better or prefer a woman as a boss.  The others, including talkative, do not have a statistically significant relationship.  (For what it's worth, the estimates for talkative are positive --favorable-- with t-ratios of 1.3 and 1.0).

You might wonder if belief that woman are more talkative is part of a pattern, going with negative views about women's intelligence, courage, etc.  It has a significant negative association with courageous--that is, people who see women as more talkative tend to see men as more courageous--but not with views about which sex is more intelligent, easy-going, or patient.  Overall, the correlations with opinions about other qualities were low.

So in conclusion, the stereotype doesn't seem to matter much either way.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Another "don't know" problem

When looking at the tabulations for the questions in my last post, I noticed a difference in the percent of "don't know" answers of self-described liberals and conservatives.  I then checked the others to see if the pattern persisted.  It did, and there are strong parallels between the gender and liberal/conservative differences.  I'll give the average for the eleven questions to make it simpler:

                    Correct     Incorrect      DK
Liberals              38%          33%         29%
Men                   35%          31%         33%
Conservatives         31%          28%         40%
Women                 30%          29%         41%

Liberals and men give more correct answers, more incorrect answers, and fewer don't knows.  The ratio of correct to incorrect answers is about the same in all groups (slightly higher among men and liberals).

So what's going on?  Although I still think my point about gender differences from the last post is partly correct, it seems to be incomplete.  My interpretation:
 (a) People sometimes interpret "conservative" to mean "cautious" (as I've discussed in other posts, a significant number of people seem to understand liberal and conservative in non-political senses)
(b) differences in "don't knows" don't involve people who know or have no idea, but people who "sort of" know, or could make a fairly good guess.  Conservatives and women who are in that middle group may be less likely to venture an answer.

Some insight is provided by the question:   "Which one of the following people is not a college dropout:   Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, designer Ralph Lauren, entertainer Ellen Degeneres, Apple founder Steve Jobs, President Calvin Coolidge, movie mogul David Geffen, and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller?"
It seems safe to assume that very few people definitely knew the true answer or confidently believed an incorrect answer.*  But you could apply some pieces of common knowledge (e. g., that a lot of people who became rich from computers or the internet were college dropouts) to make an educated guess.   So the group differences in "don't knows" were essentially a matter of willingness to try.  

                    Correct     Incorrect      DK
Liberals              20%          43%         27%
Men                   14%          53%         33%
Conservatives          8%          50%         42%
Women                 11%          44%         45%

Men were more willing to try than women, but there was little or no difference in the probability of getting it right if they tried.  Conservatives were less willing to try than liberals. Given the fairly small number of liberals and large number of don't knows, the liberal/conservative differences in the conditional probability of getting it right, although large, are not statistically significant.  

*Coolidge graduated from Amherst College, so I count him as the correct answer.  I'm not sure it's accurate to call Rockefeller a college dropout--see his biography here--but he didn't have a college degree.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What's the matter with men and/or women?

 Recently (actually, six weeks ago, but I lose my sense of time when the semester is over) the New York Times had a piece called "Women and the 'Don't Know' Problem," about the reasons that women are more likely to say "don't know" in polls than men are.  It started out by saying that women were less willing to express opinions than men were, but then turned to suggesting that men were more likely to claim knowledge that they don't actually have--"men comfortably hold forth on topics that they have little expertise on."  That theme was picked up in the reader comments, many of which comfortably held forth about the basic psychology of men and women.

An alternative hypothesis is that most poll questions are about politics and public affairs, and men may be more interested in those topics (or feel more obligation to be somewhat informed about them) than women are.  In order to choose between them we need to compare men and women on a range of questions, both political and non-political.  There is a series of surveys by Vanity Fair/CBS News which occasionally ask factual multiple-choice questions on a wide variety of issues.  I looked up the last 11 (it was going to be ten, but the last survey I looked at included two) examples, which involved:  what Donald Trump had said about himself, who Bubba Watson is, how many justices are on the Supreme Court, who Jamie Dimon is, how many universities are in the Ivy League, what Kwanzaa is, who Judd Apatow is, who Wayne LaPierre is, which one of a list of people was not a college dropout, where Northwestern University is located, and who Thomas Paine was.

The results:
                women            men
              c  i  dk         c   i dk
Trump         56 20 25   46 30 23
Watson        23 27 51         39 23 37
Supremes      36 49 16         45 49 5

Dimon         12 18 70         16 22 62
Ivy Leage     31 48 20         38 46 15
Kwanzaa       63 16 21         57 19 24

Apatow        12 22 65         16 21 62
LaPierre      19 26 56         30 23 46
dropout       11 44 46        14 53 33

Northwestern 29 36 35         39 37 23
Paine         41 16 44         47 18 35

Women are more likely to say that they don't know for ten of the eleven questions.The idea that men are more likely to claim knowledge even if they don't have it suggests that the ratio of correct to incorrect answers will be higher among women.  But that's true for only two of the questions, Donald Trump and Kwanzaa. Men are more likely to offer correct answers on nine of the questions, and more likely to offer incorrect answers on only six.

Overall, men just seem more likely to know the right answer (or be willing and able to make an educated guess) on most of the questions.  Of course, these questions aren't a representative sample of anything.  There are a couple on which you would expect men to have more knowledge (e. g., that Bubba Watson is a golf pro).  But it is noteworthy that on the two purely political questions--the Supreme Court and Wayne LaPierre--men are much more likely to identify the correct answer, and no more likely to pick the incorrect answer.

This suggests that the "problem" doesn't result from a general psychological tendency of women or men--it's that most polls focus on issues that men are more likely to know about, or have opinions about.

[Source:  iPOLL, Roper Center for Public Opinin Research]

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rise and Fall

In a column last week, Greg Mankiw said "According to a recent study, if your income is at the 98th percentile of the income distribution — that is, you earn more than 98 percent of the population — the best guess is that your children, when they are adults, will be in the 65th percentile."  Of course, you wouldn't expect those children to do as well as their parents--there's not much room to rise and lot of room to fall--but that was a bigger decline than I would have expected, so I decided to take a closer look.  

 The study refers to people born in 1980-82 and "when they are adults" is age 30.  Of course, 30-year-olds generally earn less than middle-aged people, but the authors of the study say that relative positions have pretty much stabilized by then--that is, we'd see about the same pattern if we came back 20 years later. 

Here is the pattern for people whose parents were in the 60th percentile.

The large number of people in the second percentile (actually about 6% of all 30-year olds) had zero income.  That makes it hard to read, so here is the figure showing just the lower part of the y-axis.  

The most common destination is in the low 70s.  The chances of rising above that level drop off pretty sharply.  But overall, the differences are pretty small:  you could say that people from the 60th percentile are about equally likely to end up at any point in the distribution.

Here is the 80th percentile.  It's a similar basic pattern, although the chances of winding up near the top are higher and the chances of ending near the bottom are lower.

Here is people whose parents were in the 98th percentile.  This looks different--the higher the ranking, the better your chances of getting there.  The most likely destination is the 99th percentile--even higher than the  "percentile" of zero earnings.  

 I haven't calculated the mean percentile--I'll look at this more later--but this seems to give a different picture than Mankiw's summary.