Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Climate of opinion

In the last week or so, Bret Stephens and Ross Douthat have published columns suggesting that the climate change issue is hurting the left.  To quote Stephens "the left . . . has invested itself so deeply, and increasingly inflexibly, on issues such as climate change or immigration . . . it’s a recipe for nonstop political defeat leavened only by a sensation of moral superiority."

In December, I had a post showing results for a question that has been asked a number of times since 1997:   "Do you think that global warming will pose a threat to you or your way of life in your lifetime?"  After a bit more searching, I found a question that has been asked since 1999:  "From what you know about global climate change or global warming, which of the following statements comes closest to your opinion?...Global climate change has been established as a serious problem, and immediate action is necessary, there is enough evidence that climate change is taking place and some action should be taken, we don't know enough about global climate change, and more research is necessary before we take any actions, concern about global climate change is unwarranted."  A figure combining results for the two questions (the  first in blue, the second in red):

The y-scales are proportion who say it will be a threat minus those who don't, and the mean of the four responses (4=immediate action....1=concern unwarranted).  It looks like a pretty definite upward trend--more concern about climate change--with a dip in the middle.  That dip seems to be a consequence of the recession--if you regress the figures on a time trend and the unemployment rate, unemployment has a negative and statistically significant estimate.  The last time the second question was asked, 39% chose "serious threat" and 24% chose "enough evidence."  So it doesn't seem that the left is taking an unpopular position on this issue--it may be farther in the direction of "immediate action" than most of the public, but the right is farther in the do nothing direction than most of the public.  That is the normal pattern--the left party somewhat to the left of the public and the right party somewhat to the right.

I was a bit surprised to see such a clear trend.  This isn't an issue that people can judge from their experience, and in the 21st century conservatives seem to have been united in either denial or obfuscation.  Under those circumstances, you might expect people just to follow their leaders--Democrats say it's happening, Republicans say it isn't--so that the overall distribution would remain constant. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, May 25, 2019

They said you was high class

A few days ago, the New York Times had a story called "Why high-class people get away with incompetence," based on research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  My first thought was that "high-class" seemed like an old-fashioned expression.  I used Google Ngram to check, and found that its use peaked around 1920.  My second and more serious thought was to wonder if the study actually compared upper-class people to the rest of the population:  from the description, it sounded like it treated class as a matter of degree. 

I read the paper, and in fact it did treat class as a matter of degree:  the higher your social standing, the more you overestimated your performance (or less you underestimated it) on some tests that they gave.  They didn't look for any non-linearity at the top end, and probably didn't have enough upper-class people to say much about it even if they had (only 6% of the 270 people in the main sample--students at the University of Virginia--reported a family income of over $300,000 per year).   There was also no measure of competence:  participants asked to do a "fun trivia game" and later a mock job interview.  So I would say that all what the paper showed was that people who are self-confident (measured by thinking you did well on the quiz) tend to do well on job interviews.  And there's a lot of previous evidence showing that higher social standing tends to go with optimism and confidence. 

I'm not criticizing the study--the authors were pretty clear about what they were doing and how they thought it contributed to knowledge.  What I find interesting is how the newspaper story turned it into something quite different, about incompetent upper-class people.  It wasn't because the reporter just relied on a press release--she talked to the authors and a number of other social psychologists, and it sounded like she'd read the paper.  It occurred to me that I have read a number of other stories saying that upper-class people are morally deficient.  One example is the claim that the rich give a smaller fraction of their incomes to charity than the poor, which got a good deal of publicity a few years ago although it's almost certainly false.  Another one is a 2016 column by Peggy Noonan, which I first saw a few weeks ago.  She won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2017 and this was one of the columns they selected.   It was about what she called the "protected class": 

"The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. . . . they make public policy and have for some time.

I want to call them the elite to load the rhetorical dice, but let’s stick with the protected."

Then she talks about how selfish and hypocritical the "protected" are.  Finally:

"This is a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens....

Now it seems the attitude of the top half is: You’re on your own. Get with the program, little racist.

Social philosophers are always saying the underclass must re-moralize. Maybe it is the overclass that must re-moralize."

Of course, Peggy Noonan herself is someone with "power or access to it":  she was a speechwriter for Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush and she's had a column with one of the leading newspapers in the country for the last twenty years.  Someone can be critical of a group to which they belong, but it's striking that she didn't draw on her experience to make her case--e. g., talk about the difference between the powerful people she knows today and those she knew in the Reagan White House.  She talks about "protected class" as just vaguely somewhere out there. 

I think these examples show that there's a sort of upper-class anti-elitist mood today--elites, or people who are close to elites, lamenting the moral and other failings of elites.  (It's not necessarily an egalitarian mood--that would mean doing something to reduce the wealth and power of elites). 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Words and thoughts

A few days ago, Jason Stanley and David Beaver had a piece in the New York Times saying that the words used to talk about things influence the way that people think about them.  The general point is reasonable, but one of their examples seemed strange:

"In the United States, we had the 'superpredator' theory. Violent-crime rates in the country started dropping in 1993 and continued dropping throughout the decade. And yet, in 1996, criminologists began spreading an unjustified panic about so-called superpredators — 'hardened, remorseless juveniles,' according to the political scientist John DiIulio — that led to a wave of new state laws with harsh sentences for minors. Politicians’ descriptions of young black men as 'thugs' and 'gang members' in the 1990s helped transform the United States into the country with the world’s highest incarceration rate."

But the big increase in the incarceration rate was in the 1970s and 1980s--by the beginning of the 1990s, the United States already had the highest incarceration rate among major nations of the world.  The 1990s didn't "transform" the United States:  the incarceration rate continued to increase, but not as fast as before (see this site for detailed statistics). 

In order to see what difference criminologists and politicians made, we can look at answers to a question from the General Social Survey (and before that, the Gallup Poll):  whether "courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?"  The means by year, counting "not harshly enough" as +1, about right (volunteered) as 0, and "too harshly" as -1:

Opinions moved in the "too harsh" direction in the late 1960s and 1970s, then stayed about the same from 1978 to 1994.  Between 1994 and 1996, they moved away from that position, and have continued to do so ever since.  That is, they started moving in a less punitive direction at exactly the time the Stanley and Beaver say that criminologists were spreading panic. 

So why did opinions change?  The next graph includes the homicide rate (lagged one year):

The figure suggests a simple story: people became more punitive when the homicide rate (or more broadly, the crime rate) increased and less punitive when it declined. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Protection and free trade

There has been some debate on whether the "trade war" that seems to be emerging will help or hurt Donald Trump.  Catherine Rampell says that protectionists are a "tiny minority" and that "even before Trump ran for office, Democratic voters were more positive on trade than the politicians in their own party."  I think that the second part is wrong, and I will probably have a post on that soon, but today I'll focus on the first part.  I have had several posts that say that protectionism is a popular position--that a lot of people see trade as basically a competition, rather than mutually beneficial.  I looked for additional questions on this topic, and found one that was first asked in 1988: "Which of the following statements comes closer to your opinion?...Trade restrictions are necessary to protect domestic industries. Free trade must be allowed, even if domestic industries are hurt by foreign competition."  The percent favoring restrictions minus the percent favoring free trade:

The mention of "even if domestic industries are hurt" probably pushes responses in favor of the first option, but the striking thing is that sentiment seems to be moving in that direction--more educated people are generally more supportive of free trade, so rising educational levels should produce a movement away from restrictions.  The changes do not seem to be closely related to economic conditions--the strongest support for restrictions (68% to 24%) came in March 2008, when the 2008-9 recession was just beginning and was pretty mild.  There was actually a move towards support for free trade between 2008 and April 2009.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Elites and the public on other things

In my last post, I wrote about differences between the opinions of elites and the public on tariffs.  The same survey also asked about seventeen possible foreign policy goals--whether they should be "very important," "somewhat important," or "not important."  I compared the percent saying "very important" among the general public and four elite groups--politics, business, the media, and experts.  (I left out labor and religious leaders, mostly for reasons of time, but partly because I didn't think they had that much impact on foreign policy).  There were positive correlations among all the groups--that is, if one group thought a goal was important, so did all the others, but the correlations among all of the elite groups were higher than the correlations between the elites and the public.  For example, the lowest correlation between any two elite groups was .85 (the media and politicians); the highest correlation between an elite group and the public was .66 (the media). 

There was a difference between the public and elites on the importance of "protecting the jobs of American workers."  81% percent of the public said that should be a very important goal, which was third of the seventeen items, just barely behind "stopping the flow of illegal drugs into the United States" (83%) and "preventing the spread of nuclear weapons" (82%).  Among elites, it ranked 9th:  between 27% (elites) and 49% (political) said it should be very important.  Among the public, "controlling and reducing illegal immigration" was eighth, with 57% saying it should be very important.  Among elites, it was dead last, with between 18% (politicians) and 25% (business) saying it should be very important.  Those were the two biggest discrepancies--the next was stopping the flow of drugs.  The biggest discrepancy in the other direction was "defending our allies' security"--about 60% of the elite groups and 45% of the public thought it should be very important.   

I then distinguished between members of the public with and without a college degree.  My expectation was that the opinions of people with a college degree would be somewhere in between those of elites and people without a degree--that more educated people would be influenced by the views of elites through the media and the educational system.   That was true, but they were a lot closer to the views of the less educated public than to those of elites (a mix of roughly 15% elite and 85% less educated).  They were farther from elites on one issue--"reducing our trade deficit with foreign countries."  Between 20% and 35% of the elite groups, 50% of people without a degree, and 55% of people with a degree thought that was very important.  My interpretation is that more educated people are more likely to be aware of the trade deficit and that most of them aren't familiar with the arguments for why it's not necessarily that important. 

The basic conclusion is that there was a substantial difference between the public and elites on the importance of two of the issues that Donald Trump emphasized most strongly in his campaign--reducing illegal immigration and protecting jobs.  Of course, this survey was taken 20 years ago, but it has been repeated since then, most recently in 2014.  I will look at the 2014 survey in the future, and I expect to see the same pattern.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Friday, May 3, 2019

Elites and the public on tariffs

My last few posts have been about how public opinion moved to the left between 2014 and 2016, especially on issues of race.  That raises an obvious question--why wasn't there a big swing towards the Democrats in the 2016 election?  The basic answer is that there are other things going on, like a general sense of how things are going and the personal qualities of the candidates.   I think that the Democrats probably did gain something from the change in opinions that I have talked about.  But Donald Trump also introduced something new:   the idea that he was more interested in protecting American industry than in free trade.

Between 1978 and 2002, the Gallup Poll had the following question:   "It has been argued that if all countries would eliminate their tariffs and restrictions on imported goods, the costs of goods would go down for everyone. Others have said that such tariffs and restrictions are necessary to protect certain manufacturing jobs in certain industries from the competition of less expensive imports... Generally, would you say you sympathize more with those who want to eliminate tariffs or those who think such tariffs are necessary?"  This question has a couple of good features:  it's about general principles rather than a specific trade agreement and it gives the basic arguments for and against tariffs.  The percent who favor eliminating tariffs minus than the percent who say they are necessary:

Public opinion moved in favor of eliminating tariffs, but even in 2002 only 38% took that position, versus 50% who said tariffs were necessary.  The 1982 and 1998 surveys also had an "elite" sample, and I show opinions in that group too.  A solid majority of elites were in favor of eliminating tariffs (62% in 1998).  

But speaking of "elites" as a whole is kind of misleading, because there were large differences among various kinds of elites.  In 1998:
              Eliminate   Justified
Labor           18%       75%
Religious     40%        49%
Media          60%        37%
Business      65%        34%
Politics        71%        25%
Experts       78%        19%

So there was an even larger gap between public opinion and the opinions of political elites, and I think Trump was able to appeal to that.   People could tell that he would place a higher priority on protecting manufacturing jobs than on reducing tariffs--that was a sentiment that no major party nominee had appealed to before.  Of course, public opinion might have changed considerably since 2002, but I think the general point is still true:  the public is a lot less enthusiastic about free trade, even as an ideal, than mainstream politicians are (or were--some may be adjusting their opinions now).   

The definitions of the elites are:

Labor:  Presidents of large labor unions
Religious:  "Religious leaders representing all faiths"
Media:  TV and radio news directors, newscasters, newspaper editors and columnists
Business:  Vice presidents in charge of international affairs, top industrial corporations; leaders of trade and professional organizations
Politics:  Senators and Representatives or their top staffers; assistant secretaries and other senior level executive staff
Experts:  "presidents and faculty who teach in the area of foreign affairs" at an idiosyncratic but pretty elite list of universities.  

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]