Tuesday, February 28, 2017

No need to explain

In the last few months, there have been many attempts to explain why the public is so discontented.  Nicholas Eberstadt says the discontent is a response to real economic problems, while Roger Cohen finds it more mysterious, an example of "the madness of crowds."  But before trying to explain why people are discontented, we should check and see whether they really are.  Eberstadt says "growing majorities hold that America is 'heading in the wrong direction."  A few weeks ago, I had a post about the right direction/wrong track question, and there's no sign of growth--opinions have gone up and down since the 1970s, and at the moment they are pretty much in the middle.  Eberstadt also says "overwhelming majorities of respondents . . . continue to tell pollsters, year after year, that . . . America is still stuck in the middle of a recession."  There have been some questions like that--the latest one in the iPOLL database has 20 percent saying that we are in a recession and 60 percent saying we are not--but they don't go back that far so I looked at a question that was first asked in the 1970s:  "Do you think the economy is getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?"  That has been asked so frequently that I just included the ones from the 1970s plus one from every year starting in 1980.  I tried to get one from October, otherwise September, August..... (I avoided November or December in case responses are affected by the outcome of elections).  The results, summarized as percent saying better minus percent saying worse:

By historical standards, people are not especially negative today--in fact, they are a bit on the positive side.  The median value is -14, and in October 2016, it was -4.  Even in October 2008, assessments were not nearly as negative as in the late 1970s or the mild recession of 1990.  I think I have an explanation for that, which I will offer in a later post.  But for now, I'll just say that people are not especially discontented about the economy or "things in this country"--the see them as pretty much normal, not especially good and not especially bad.  What they are discontented with is politics, specifically politics in Washington.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Friday, February 24, 2017

Looking backward

Sunday was the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which provided the basis for sending people of Japanese ancestry (and some of German or Italian ancestry) to internment camps.  As far as I can tell, no contemporary survey asked people whether they agreed with the policy.  In December 1942, a Gallup poll asked "Do you think the Japanese who were moved inland from the Pacific coast should be allowed to return to the Pacific coast when the war is over?"  35% said yes, 48% no, and 15% weren't sure.  There was also a follow-up "Should American born Japanese be allowed to return to their homes on the coast after the war?" and about 23% gave a combination of no or not sure on the first and yes on the second.*

In 1946, a NORC survey asked "do you think the average Japanese person who lives in this country is loyal or disloyal to the American government?"  50% said loyal, 25% disloyal, and 25% didn't know.  People who said "loyal" or "don't know" were asked "do you think the average Japanese person now living in this country who is not a citizen should or should not be allowed to become a citizen?"  Combining the two, 42% said should be allowed to apply for citizenship, 21% sail loyal but should not, and 25% said disloyal (and presumably should not), and the rest not sure about loyalty and whether they should be allowed to apply.

In 1991, a Gallup poll asked " Here in this country, the U.S. (United States) government required many U.S. citizens of Japanese descent to leave their homes and move to relocation camps during World War II. Looking back, would you say you approve or disapprove of this action?"  33% said they approved and 62% disapproved.

The 1942 survey didn't ask about education, but the 1946 and 1991 surveys did.  In both cases, it was associated with more sympathetic attitudes towards Japanese-Americans.  In 1991, 36% of people without a high school diploma said they approved and 50% disapproved; among college graduates it was 22% approve and 75% disapprove.

One way to look at this comparison is that it shows that there was probably a change in public opinion.  The fact that the Gallup poll didn't even ask about general approval of the order suggests that they didn't think it was controversial.  Also, at that time they frequently classified and recorded answers that didn't fit into the standard categories:  they counted 1% as giving what they called "yes, if" answers, but didn't record anyone as saying something along the lines of "they never should have been moved in the first place."   in 1991, a clear majority disapproved.  Another way to look at it is that something that was universally condemned among political and legal elites by 1991 still had significant support in the general public.

*Some of the "don't knows" weren't asked the follow-up:  if they had, it would probably have been up to 25% or 26%.  

Friday, February 17, 2017

Immigration issue or immigration issues?

Thomas Edsall has a piece called "The Democrats' Immigration Problem."  In the first sentence, he asks "why is immigration such a problem for the Democratic party?"  I was struck by the assumption that "immigration" is a single issue.  There is a question of whether laws should be changed to make it easier or harder for people to immigrate to the United States, and a question of what should be done with unauthorized immigrants who are already here.  You can imagine someone who says that the law should be changed to allow more immigration in the future, but until that's done we should enforce the law that we have; or on the other side, someone who says we should allow people who've been living here to become citizens but then we should close the door.

Do people make these kinds of distinctions, or are they simply more or less favorable to immigrants?  I found a CBS News/NY Times survey from 2011 which asked "Should legal immigration into the United States be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?" and "Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.? 1. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, or 2. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as guest workers, but not to apply for U.S. citizenship, or 3. They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S."

There is an association between opinions on the two issues--for example, 50% of those who say that immigration levels should be increased and only 26% of those who say that they should be reduced choose  "should be allowed to stay in their jobs and apply for citizenship."  But the association is weaker than the association between opinions about same-sex marriage (allowed/civil unions/no recognition) and abortion (allowed/with restrictions/not allowed), which are certainly two different issues.  In fact, the correlation between views on same-sex marriage and treatment of illegal immigrants is as strong (.22) as the correlation between treatment of illegal immigrants and desired immigration levels (.21).  So people do seem to treat the two issues as distinct, although related.

More educated people, people in the Northeast and West, Jews, and people in urban areas take more liberal positions ("increased" and "allowed to stay") on both issues, and evangelical Christians take more conservative positions.  The samples of blacks and Hispanics were unusually small for this survey, so it's not possible to say anything definite about ethnic difference.  The effects of age and gender, however, can't be described as simply liberal or conservative.  Young people are considerably more likely to favor increased levels of immigration, but no different in views of policy towards illegal immigrants.  Women are more likely to say that people who are here should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, but also more likely to say that immigration levels should be decreased.  

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Forgotten but not gone: the sequel

A few weeks ago, I showed the estimated effect of college education on Democratic vs. Republican voting in presidential elections from 1936-2012, using a combination of Gallup (1936-68) and GSS (1968-2012) data.  It occurred to me that the GSS also had a measure of income (in constant dollars).  Larry Bartels (Unequal Democracy) gives evidence from the 1952-2004 American National Election Studies suggesting that the association between higher income and support for the Republicans had become stronger over that period, although the association between higher education and support for the Republicans had become weaker.  I later found the same thing in an analysis that also controlled for occupation (the association between occupation and voting change in a more complex way, although in a sense it became weaker--read the paper for more detail than you probably want).

There's a good deal of sampling error in the ANES estimates, so the GSS is useful as a check.  The estimated effects (controlling for race, gender, education, and marital status) are shown in this figure (the scales are not the same but happened to be pretty similar):

There are some differences between ANES and GSS estimates for individual elections (especially 1980), but the general pattern is similar:  high in the 1970s and early 1980s, and then declining.  The decline is more evident with the GSS, since 2008 and 2012 remained low.  So it seems that Bartels' statement that "over the past half-century economic status [income] has become more important, not less important, in structuring the presidential behavior of white Americans" needs to be modified:  it  became more important from the 1950s through the 1980s, and then less important.  The general issue here is that the impact of education, income, and occupation don't follow the same path over time.  It might seem like they are all "indicators" of the same thing, your general position in society. so that when the impact of one moves in a particular direction, the impact of the others should as well.  But in fact, there are three different different things that need to be explained.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Everyone agrees that Donald Trump is a populist, but there's no consensus on what that means.  In a recent column, Thomas Edsall treats populism as equivalent to taking conservative positions in the "culture wars," but by that standard Trump is probably the least populist Republican candidate for president since Gerald Ford.  He rarely mentioned issues like same sex marriage and abortion, and even said positive things about Planned Parenthood.

I think that the best starting point is one suggested by Ross Douthat:  populism is a "set of ideas [that] commands public support but lacks purchase in elite policy debate."  It might seem that the exact nature of those ideas would be idiosyncratic--they would just be things on which there happened to be a gap between elite and pubic opinion at a particular place and time.  However, there is a reasonably coherent set of ideas that meet this definition in most western nations since the end of the Second World War.  One component is nationalism:  the belief that nations have an obligation to think about their own people first and take care of problems "here at home" before worrying about the rest of the world.  Reluctance to accept immigrants and suspicion of free trade follow from this.  On foreign policy, the populist position is sometimes characterized as "isolationist," but it would be more accurate to say that it's impatient with diplomacy, international agreements, and long-term obligations:  we should intervene when the nation's interests are at stake and then get out.  On domestic policy, populism favors generous benefits to “deserving” people, like veterans, old people, and low-paid workers, but not general aid to the poor.  It favors requiring companies (especially big companies) to offer good wages and benefits, and shifting the tax burden from individuals to corporations.  It accepts ad-hoc intervention in the economy such as taking action against companies that make "excessive" profits.  Finally, it's in favor of "law and order":  it's impatient with protections for the rights of people accused of crimes, and doesn't have much interest in free speech for people with unpopular points of view.  Why do I say that these are "populist" positions?  Because they are all positions that are pretty popular among the public but are usually ignored or brushed aside in policy debates.  On some of them it's a matter of degree:  for example, elites are not against generous benefits to retired people, but they are more likely to say that demographic realities mean it will be necessary to raise the retirement age and cut benefits.

Advocating positions that are popular among the public might seem like a recipe for lasting political success, but Douthat says that populism has several forces that undermine it.  One is "it often embraces bigotries and extremisms that in turn color the reception of its policies."  That would limit its appeal, but it had already appeared in the campaign and didn't prevent Trump from staying close enough to win the presidential election, or Republicans from winning clear majorities in both houses of Congress.  Another is incompetence and disregard for organization--that's definitely been on display over the last two weeks.  A third is that elites unite against it.  That would be the case in a healthy political culture, but the contemporary United States is not a healthy political culture:  Trump has encountered only mild criticism from Republicans in Congress (“We all get disappointed from time to time,” Mr. McConnell said. “I think it is best to avoid criticizing them [judges] individually.”)  Is there anything else that might hold a populist program back?  Some populist policies might not remain popular if there were a serious attempt to implement them.  For example, polls show a lot of support for an effort to deport all illegal immigrants, but if that actually happened there would be a lot of sympathetic cases, and support would probably decline.  Populist economic policies would be likely to lead to recession and possibly to inflation or shortages.  But it's unlikely that we will get to the point of implementing a populist economic program--Trump's administration seems to be divided, and almost all other Republicans are committed to cutting taxes and regulations on business--basically, an anti-populist program.  So on economics, I think the Trump administration is likely to get the worst of both worlds--bad economic performance because of protectionism and ad-hoc intervention and bad publicity because of measures that appear to (and do) benefit business at the expense of the public.

[Thanks to Robert Biggert for discussion of these issues.]