More Polling Numbers

It’s time for another visit to the world of survey results. As I wrote when I last visited, poll numbers are not my favorite kind of numbers, but they are way better than no numbers at all. Particularly on economic issues, poll numbers are less informative than how people and companies actually spend money,Car_accident_poland_2008 but they are way more useful than mere words put out by people like me. (Note I said "like me" not "me". My analysis is always first-rate.)

If you know the world through words from the media, some of the numbers the pollsters find may be jarring. For example, Gallup recently found that 45% of Americans think there is too much government regulation of business and industry and only 24% think there is too little. That’s a fairly wide margin in favor of less regulation, but what may be truly surprising is that in the past year that plurality has widened. In September 2008, just before it all hit the fan, too much beat too little by 38%-27%. In fact, 45% is the highest number in at least a decade.

You might have thought, and I will admit to having thought this, that the Great Recession had won over enough converts to the unbridled-capitalism-is-bad camp that there was now a broad consensus that we needed more regulation, with only the details of what and where to be worked out. Turns out the opposite is true. The GR seems to have, miraculously, won over more people to the less-government-is-better-government side. Go figure.

Even "reforms" widely reported as popular turn out to have lukewarm support from ordinary Americans. In August CBS News asked if government should limit executive pay in financial firms and found the public evenly split yes/no at 46%-46%. That’s hardly a wave of populist sentiment, something CBS didn’t mention this month in its reporting of the government’s new limits on executive pay at bailed out companies and banks.

I’m of two minds when it comes to the conflict between what the public wants and what the government does. I abhor spineless politicians who base their opinions on poll numbers and focus groups. But once in while the public gets it right. Back in June an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans disapproved of the bailouts of GM and Chrysler 53%-39%.

You might able to explain the disconnect between poll numbers and Congressional action in the auto bailout as a case of a piece of pork doled out in a year that saw entire herds of pigs slaughtered. But the disconnect is there in healthcare too.

Firstly, Americans don’t see healthcare reform as a particular priority. When asked what Obama’s top concern should be, the economy wins easily, with healthcare in third place just behind Iraq and Afghanistan and just ahead of the deficit. By 58%-38% Americans would prefer a gradual approach to a big reform this year. Back in July only 41% of Americans thought we needed a healthcare reform by the end of 2009.

Moreover, what is perceived as a national crisis inside the Beltway is apparently perceived as ho-hum outside. The great majority of Americans are happy with the healthcare status quo. 80% are satisfied or very satisfied with the medical care they currently get and even 61% are satisfied or very satisfied with the cost. Even among the uninsured, presumably the group that would most benefit from reform, less than half would tell their Congressman to vote for it.

Finally, and I really don’t understand why this doesn’t scare the crap out of the Democrats, 39% of Americans believe that the quality of care they get will get worse if reform is enacted against only 19% who think it will get better. On costs it’s 49% worse 22% better. Add that to a general lack of enthusiasm for increasing the role government in general and a feeling that there are more important problems to be tackled just now, and you’ve got the makings of an electoral disaster for the Blue Team.

Speaking of electoral surprises, I want to go on the record predicting that California will legalize marijuana by ballot initiative in November 2010. And I’m not talking medical marijuana. I mean straight up smoke ‘em if you got ‘em legalization.

For just about the entire 1980s and 1990s, Americans were against legalizing pot by around 75%-25%. Then, for reasons I don’t immediately get, about ten years ago the tide started turning. Americans are now against legalization by only 54%-44%. At this rate, according to Gallup, legalization could get a national majority as early as 2013. Moreover, opinion on this is regionally skewed, with people in the west majority in favor now. In California, legalization is ahead 54%-39%. That being the land where politicians need not take a stand on such things and can just wait for the voters to legislate, I predict this will be on the ballot in 2010 and that it will win.

I’d probably vote for it if I lived in California. But don’t get worried that I’m being carried away by populist fervor. I still think most people are annoyingly clueless.

For example, take perceptions of crime. 74% of Americans think crime has increased over the past year. You might chalk that up the GR, except that the number has been between 67% and 71% for four years now. In fact, except for a single survey right after the September 11 attacks, more Americans have told Gallup that they think the crime rate is increasing than decreasing since the early ’90s, a period in which crime was generally falling.

And which crime, you might want to know, do Americans worry about most? By a wide margin, the crime that Americans worry about most is identity theft. 66% said they worry about it frequently or occasionally. Car theft/break-ins and home burglary were essentially tied for second at 47% and 46%.

I’ve already written about how the fear of identity theft is a form of mass hysteria, encouraged by a few businesses seeking to turn a profit on it. Car theft is apparently about three times more common.

Of course, I should mention number four on the Gallup survey: 35% of Americans worry frequently or occasionally about being the victims of terrorism. But only 4% worried about being killed by a coworker. (Sounds like at least 1 in 25 Americans needs a new job.)

For some polls the majority picking the obviously correct answer is reassuring until you consider that it was not unanimous and a meaningful minority apparently has a hole in their head.

90% of Americans think texting while driving should be illegal. Okay, fine. But that means 10% Americans think it should be allowed. And we let these people vote? And drive? The same survey found that 21% of those 18-29 admitted to often or sometimes doing it. Remind me to drive a lot more carefully.

Then again, there are always those who amuse themselves by lying to pollsters. Again according the same survey, 2% of those over 60 claimed to often or sometimes text behind the wheel. Go figure.

No Comments

  • By Rob Bennett, October 30, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    The GR seems to have, miraculously, won over more people to the less-government-is-better-government side. Go figure.

    Obama’s mistake (in my view) was doing too little of significance to fix the economy and going too hard with the idea of increasing the size of the government. I believe that the economic crisis has caused many people to be more open to government solutions. But the failure to take their priorities into consideration has caused a breakdown of trust. People feel that government is being pushed on them and that is making them skeptical.

    Had Obama spent his first year fixing the economy and racked up real successes, we would be seeing a different response to efforts to expand the role of government, in my view.


  • By Jason, October 30, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Strangely since only “texting while driving” is measured, no one cares about putting on lipstick, adjusting the radio, eating, using a gps or being distracted by your kids while driving. Since we don’t measure them they must all be perfectly safe. I believe it is already illegal to be “distracted” while driving so why do we even have to legislate “texting”? Welcome to our nanny state.

  • By Stephen Stchur, October 30, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

    Marijuana won’t be legalized, not in California or anywhere else any time soon. And the reason has nothing to do with what people want or don’t want. It has everything to do with the fact that is would be REALLY REALLY HARD (

  • By Stephen Stchur, October 30, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    Seem the blogging engine thought the trailing paren was part of the URL:

    Here is a URL you can actually click on:

  • By Phil, October 31, 2009 @ 4:53 am

    What these polls tell me is that short-term thinking is ingrained in the American culture. Currently health care is not a crisis; however the current system is clearly unsustainable.

    The “invisible hand” works great for fungible goods/services – the less gov’t regs the better. Health care is not a fungible service. You *trust* your doctor and keep going to him/her no matter the cost; you don’t get that tumor removed by the lowest bidder. When faced with the choice between death (or disability) and paying his/her life savings – almost anyone will choose the latter; the amount of money just doesn’t figure into the decision.
    How should health care be structured so it is fair and some level of service is available to all? I don’t know, but I do know that free-range capitalism won’t find a sustainable solution.

  • By Dove, November 1, 2009 @ 12:58 am

    You might have thought, and I will admit to having thought this, that the Great Recession had won over enough converts to the unbridled-capitalism-is-bad camp that there was now a broad consensus that we needed more regulation, with only the details of what and where to be worked out.

    Those who thought regulation was good concluded a lack of it was to blame. Those who thought it bad blamed an excess of same. I find that disasters and the unexpected do not tend to change beliefs; it turns out people are no better at analyzing the underlying causes of bad things than they are at analyzing the rules that run the rest of the world.

    The anti-regulation crowd seems to have done well recently, but to suppose either view constitutes a consensus or that there is anything like a common story about the cause of the recession is flatly mistaken. It says more about the political diversity of one’s social circles than anything else.

  • By Dove, November 1, 2009 @ 1:42 am

    Health care is not a fungible service.

    This isn’t true at all. The vast majority of health care doesn’t deal with life or death cases, but with simple things: broken bones, infections, managing diabetes, delivering babies, treating allergies, and the like. Common problems are well understood, so choosing a better doctor has more to do with improving lifestyle than with fending off death.

    Even in life or death cases, it is not as though there is only one doctor in the world who can treat cancer. It is still possible for competition to function in this marketplace. Nor is it true that the best doctor or most effective strategy necessarily commands an infinite price. For some people this is so, for others a slight increase in risk is worth a high savings in cost. Compare the decision process involved in choosing car safety features (or riding a motorcycle!), home alarm systems, or extreme sports safety gear. Some will want the best at all costs; others don’t mind a slightly increased risk or death or injury.

    Nor is it the case that the lowest bidder is always unsafe. Perhaps less safe than you would like, but that’s what markets are for. No one would buy a car with no brakes, however cheap it was, and no one would visit an unreasonably reckless doctor. Each must maintain a balance of effectiveness and risk and cost that some segment of the population finds acceptable.

    For my part, I don’t think health care has reached anything like a crisis. Costs have been rising badly, and have now reached the point of accute annoyance–all that is necessary for the market to intervene. The system is broken, and the largest causes are ill-considered tax incentives and overuse of insurance driven by same. The free market is in the process of fixing the problem, with the rising prevalance of High Deductable/HSA plans, direct primary care, and cash-only practices. Now that such things are available, I pay less for better medical care than I ever have, and I expect this trend to continue–assuming Washington doesn’t do anything dumb enough to reverse it.

  • By Dove, November 1, 2009 @ 1:54 am

    90% of Americans think texting while driving should be illegal. Okay, fine. But that means 10% Americans think it should be allowed. And we let these people vote? And drive?

    Well, that doesn’t mean that 10% think it’s a good idea. Only that they aren’t sure enough that it’s bad enough that it should be illegal. Recall that (off the cuff) something like 5-10% of the population identify as libertarian, and often think some astonishing things in general should be legal.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, November 2, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    I wasn’t sure when I wrote this if the healthcare or marijuana bits would get the most comments. I guess it’s healthcare by a nose.

    Rob: I agree. The Democrats seem to have a gift for having no clue why they got elected.

    Jason: I think texting is amongst the worst things you can do while driving because it requires you to concentrate your vision on something other than the road. There’s no question that arguing with your son in the backseat impares your driving, but it’s nothing compared to doing it via text on your iPhone.

    Steven Stchur: I think the key point about marijuana is that it is practically legal for most purposes now, and has been for decades. A year ago we in Massachusetts passed a ballot question to decriminalize the possesion of personal use amounts, reducing it to a ticketable civil offence. It got little press because it was such a non-event. I’m waiting for some reporter on a slow news day to call around and ask our various police forces how many tickets they’ve written in the past year. My money is on zero. I think that as a practical matter the only ways you can get the cops interested is if you are under-age or sell to someone who is under-age, i.e. exactly the same as alcohol.

    The California legalization camp has made a lot of progress with the argument that it should be legal so it can be taxed. That doesn’t just resonate becuase the state could really use the money. Not being taxed is the most significant practical effect of its nominal illegality. As it is, it’s all moonshine.

    Dove: You can make one long comment if you like. Or not. Up to you.

    Totally agree on the events confirming previous beliefs thing.

    And I agree on healthcare. The elephant in the room that nobody will acknowledge is that the reason healthcare costs keep going up so fast is that we have a system built so that the people making the buy decisions (patients and doctors) are generally completely insulated from the costs. It’s a world of expense accounts. As the great Phil Gramm once put it during the Clinton attempt at health reform “If we paid for food in this country the way we pay for healthcare, I know I’d eat better. And so would my dog.”

    On texting, I think you’d have to be pretty far off the libertarian deep end to think texting while drving should be allowed. This isn’t seat belts. You don’t just endanger your own life, but everybody else on the road. I doubt that 10% of Americans would say that stopping at red lights should be optional.

  • By Jim, November 2, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

    1) I think the polls on health care tend to contradict themselves. The issue is complicated enough that depending on what you ask you can get several questions that have the same people seeming to say they are both for and against reform.

    People can be happy with their own insurance yet want reform. People can fear costs will go up yet think reform is a good idea. People can favor reform yet not consider it the highest priority item in the country today.

    Here’s more poll figures from Polling report:

    76% people support a public plan.
    71% people support making insurance mandatory.
    55% people think health care reform is more important than ever.
    69% of people think they’d be better off or the same if reform is passed.
    84% of people think the health care system needs major or fundamental changes.

    It all depends on what question is asked and how its asked.

    2) They should definitely legalize marijuana.

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