Sunday, November 30, 2008

Another Poll Shows Americans are Dumb as what

Kathleen Parker is one of my favorite columnists. I don't often agree with her, but, she writes very well, will skewer her own kind when they are wrong (an odd thing for hard ideological writers), and she makes me think.

She is a regular in our Sunday paper here, usually trailing several days her columns from WaPo. The headline for her column today says it all: "Bailing Out Ignorance."

This is another in a cottage industry of stories about what Americans don't know. Now, I recognize that for a college professor to suggest that only 21% of American's recognize phrases from the Gettysburg Address may not be the cultural fracture that the "illuminati" like to suggest it is, is odd, but the fact is, the only effect that can be shown with such ignorance is the ignornace it self. Instead of only 0.8% of the sample getting an A, that 80% earned an A, what tangible differences would it make?

Remember the early 80s with the conservative push on a loss of traditional values/culture? Allan Bloom and his ilk of elitist illuminati?

How many Christians do you suppose would score highly on bible trivial pursuit?

In a book that I am a third author on, "Tabloid Justice," in data I don't recall if we really delved into, it seems I recall finding a negative relationship between people who watch TV and their knowledge of the criminal justice system. But, so what? This is not to suggest that judges, lawyers, and cops don't know enough to work the system, but regular folks are going to serve as jurors, but lawyers like ignorant jurors, so that seems to be potentially a good thing.

A quick Google search shows how many similar such polls demonstrate ignorance:

A Pew Center study shows that the proliferation of new media isn't necessarily informing people any better, indeed, in many areas, there is a reduction, but not across the board:

"Most Americans Don't Know 'Better Fats' Benefit Heart Health" Even in something as self-serving as their health, Americans are dumb:
Fewer than half of Americans know that the "better" fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) can help reduce their risk of heart disease, according to a recent survey(1) by the American Heart Association.

Heart disease is the number one killer of Americans. Go figure why people don't know about that either.

Even Pravda has noticed how damn dumb we are, citing a National Geogrpahic Study (American's geographic ignorance is well known and little repaired since being discovered nearly 20 years ago). I like the headline on this one: "Being too proud of themselves, many Americans don’t know where New York is"

Most of the story looks lifted directly from Nat'l Geographic, but this study is of youth, which paints an ominous picture of the future. Some of the startling findings:

The results showed causes for concern. Here are the most evident examples of young Americans’ illiteracy.

Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map - though U.S. troops have been there since 2003.

6 in 10 young Americans don't speak a foreign language fluently.

20% of young Americans think Sudan is in Asia. (It's the largest country in Africa.)

48% of young Americans believe the majority population in India is Muslim. (It's Hindu—by a landslide.)

Half of young Americans can't find New York on a map.

Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map – even after images of the tsunami and the damage it caused to this region of the world played prominently across television screens and in the pages of print media over many months in 2005.

The majority of the American young adults overestimate the total size of the US population and fail to understand how much larger the population of China is.

Three-quarters believe English is the most common spoken native language in the world, rather than Mandarin Chinese.

Only Two-thirds (67%) can find Louisiana on a US map and half (52%) can find Mississippi – leaving a third or more who cannot find these states, in spite of months of intensive media coverage of the 2005 hurricanes and their aftermath.

From over 20 years ago, another ignorance poll about our constitution. What Americans Don't Know About the Constitution (I wonder if our current President wsa one of those surveyed?) Remember, these facts are from a study in 1987:

Well over half of those surveyed believed:

The president, acting alone, can appoint a justice to the Supreme Court.
The Constitution established English as the national language.
The Constitution guarantees the right to a free public education.
Here are some other findings from the survey:

Almost half of those surveyed mistakenly thought that a Supreme Court decision can never be overruled.
Nearly half believed that a president can suspend constitutional liberties in a time of national emergency.
Eighty-five percent thought that any important case may be appealed from state courts to the Supreme Court.
Forty-six percent of adult Americans did not know that the purpose of the Constitution was to create a federal government and define its powers.
Twenty-six percent believed that the Constitution's purpose was to declare independence from England

And a fifth example:

Nanotechnology And Synthetic Biology: Americans Don't Know What's Coming (yet it is still coming and some of those responsible are dumb ass Americans)

At least this study suggested specific problems with ignorance, specifically in the public policy realm:

Early in the administration of the next president, scientists are expected to take the next major step toward the creation of synthetic forms of life. Yet the results from the first U.S. telephone poll about synthetic biology show that most adults have heard just a little or nothing at all about it," says PEN Director David Rejeski. The poll findings are contained a report published September 30.

Okay, this entry is getting way to long, and my hope is that Kethleen Parker might actually read it.

Three points: first, we have no idea what our citizens knew in the past. The assumption is that we knew more in the past. But what evidence do you really have? 20 years ago we didn't know the constitution, and I could demonstrate more of the same from the past, but I didn't simple search produced enough to make these points.

Second, this measure of knowledge, a multiple choice test, is a BAD measure to measure cultural knoweldge. Would conducting the test with a group composed of a cross section of 5 people do any better? Based on my own testing procedures for multiple choice exams, yes. Knowledge is social. And telephone surveys are especially bad at tapping knowlege like this. What would focus groups demonstrate, after all, we discuss things as we need to.

Third, how many people need to know stuff? We have a specialized division of labor. In simpler societies, every one pretty much knows the same stuff, but in more complex industrial societies, and now global societies, we are very interdependent; we rely on a variety of authorities to signal the right stuff to us. If i have a constitutional question, I listen to Jonathan Turley; if I have a medical question I listen to my doc. Now, I also try to find stuff out myself. A far better study would be to see how people use the tremendous information available to them. It is one thing to not know stuff on a random multiple choice test, it is far another to show the ability and wherewithall to find it out.

Kathleen Parker fears a "demogogue." You mean like the unitary executive of the
Bush Administration? Fear, in the form of fear of terrorism, will overwhelm rational action, which is fact based, no matter what. Ms. Parker cites a history prof, a member of the condescending illuminati:
In his book, Shenkman, founder of George Mason University's History News Network, is tough on everyday Americans. Why, he asks, do we value polls when clearly The People don't know enough to make a reasoned judgment?

The founding fathers, Shenkman points out, weren't so enamored of The People, whom they distrusted. Hence a Republic, not a Democracy. They understood that an ignorant electorate was susceptible to emotional manipulation and feared the tyranny of the masses.

This is an old argument. What knowledge would you test to establish rational?
Give drivers a book test after 20 years of driving, will they pass it? Could I pass my phD prelims again, today, without preparation?

Knowledge is a use or lose it proposition. On what occasions do most Americans need to know what is contained in the first Amendment...this doesn't suggest they don't know they have a right to free speech; or what the electoral college does..that hasnt made it any easier to get rid of!; or that Congress has the power to declare war: well, since the last formal declaration of war, we have been to Korea (a UN action, right), Vietnam (War Powers Act basically gave the Pres power to go to war without Congress' approval...subverting the Constitution....that was over 30 years ago);

Had Americans shown incredible knowledge, instead of ignornace, what would be different today? No Iraq war? No terrorist attacks? No economic crisis? Would we have freed ourselves of our dependency on foreign oil back in the 70s? Would we have traveled to Mars intead of just to the moon? Would diabetes not be a epidemic? Would we have not developed cable tv, the internet, and cell phones for their dumbing down effects as Parker suggests?

Such studies make for great American bashing...and I'll admit to having done it myself (see early post on ignornace abounding in the income tax discussion), but as far as a harbinger of the end of America as we know it, I doubt it. I am not even sure it reflects poorly on our educational system. That Americans are "anti-intellectual" is nothing new. And these tests merely show that. And yet, we survive, thrive, and lead.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Convenience is the key to unlocking individual adaptation to climate change

I found this link to an article in the Windsor Times (Canada) on a recent survey on declining willingness to adapt to global climate change.

The release of the survey seems to be aimed at influencing next week's round of discusions about adaptation to climate change in Poland:

There is both growing public reluctance to make personal sacrifices and a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the major international efforts now underway to battle climate change, according to findings of a poll of 12,000 citizens in 11 countries, including Canada.

Results of the poll were released this week in advance of the start of a major international conference in Poland where delegates are considering steps toward a new international climate-change treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

While individuals indicated less willingness to do anything, they do want their governments to do something:

Results of the poll suggested that 55 per cent of respondents in the 11 countries said their governments should be doing more by investing in renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and wave power.

That's more than double the 27 per cent who wanted their governments to participate in Kyoto-style international agreements to reduce emissions.

I tried to find the report, but couldn't, though I admit, I spent more time shopping online than I did trying to track down the referenced report.

From this news article, I conclude this: people want more, not less. (surprise, surprise). What I mean is that people want more investment in long term solutions, more wind, more solar, probably hoping for a perfect substitution to the carbon based economies we have now. A reduction in carbon emisions sounds too much like "restrictions" or accountability (carbon tax) for one's use of carbon.

Regular folks don't really care where the "juice" comes from as long as it works.

Also, simple things like changing light bulbs, buying "green" are the models. People will do stuff if they believe it is convenient (a key value no one ever addresses) and will save money. (Even if it doesn't). Belief is key.

So, when I see stuff like this, article headlined Five Ways to Prevent Global Warming That Big Media Won’t Tell You I begin to shudder, because these are the kinds of changes that freak people out (no matter how right it might be). If you don't want to click on the article, here is the run down:

1. "Avoid high gas prices and carbon emissions" by getting rid of your car altogether and riding a bike (yup, sounds good for urban, not too snowy, cold, or rainy places, but not really pratical for probably half of us)

2. "Eat fresh, local foods for a healthy environment and you" this is the farmer's market solution. Convenience is he killer here. It means more trips to the market (since everything is fresh and doesn't cans, no frozen stuff), AND, if I am only going to eat local stuff here, in Indiana, not much growing now, until need to preserve during summer.

3. "Learn how to reduce your home’s carbon footprint" this is about expensive renovations to one's home including the very stuff one's home is constructed of...lumber bad because of transportation costs and concrete bad because of transportation....corn cobs and hay bales? come on. Changes in behavior like turning off lights when not in use nad just caulking windows, etc. is more likely and more likely to make a dent in the problem. 10% of people destroying their current home and rebuilding with hay stacks is not going to have as much an impact if 50% adopting just money saving, energy saving behaviors in their existing homes.

4. "Keep money in your pocket and carbon out of the air" I like this one, spiritually, this is about "consumerism." yes, buy less, fewer stuffsssssss. yes, but the article suggests this:
But you can take a jab at the consumerism machine by reducing your consumption. For example, you can do this by buying used clothing, joining a co-op, and participating in events like Buy Nothing Day.

5. "Live your values happily with friends" or join a commune, now called an ecovillage. What I like best about this is that the picture that accompanies this section is clearly very, the 10 mile bike ride to work becomes a reality.

I wonder what the effects of these ideas have on folks answering surveys about how much time, money, and effort they are willing to expend to deal with climate change?

I can't speak for other societies, but I am pretty sure that individual responses by Americans will have to be sold as convenient. That is why I think fuel cells will win out over electric cars. Electric cars will require daily recharging...maybe people are used to recharging their cell phones and ipods and computers will easily adapt, but I think "when I need it, I get it" which is the pattern for gas powered cars...hydrogen fuel cells will be the same, even if there are huge infrastructure issues.

Look, the ideal solution is going to be changed to create a realistic solution. Certain values are going to have to be dealt with, covenience being a huge one.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I'm BAAAAAAAck. with beer

I did not intend to take a hiatus from blogging. It just sort of happened. Part of it was because of burn out after the election and that I was out of town at a conference.

Okay, I also want to steer clear of the easy stuff...electioneering and politics for a while.

Found this interesting nugget at Science Daily: Bottoms Up: Individualists More Likely To Be Problem Drinkers

In short, the researchers found that those who are more "individualist" compared to "collectivist" are more likely to be problem drinkers. An excerpt:

The researchers found that people with more interdependent mindsets were less likely to over-consume when they were with peers. "The results suggest that people with collectivistic cultural orientations tend to be more motivated to regulate impulsive consumption tendencies than those with individualistic cultural orientations, which in turn makes them less likely to engage in beer or alcohol consumption," the authors conclude.

Now the authors have no direct measure of drinking behavior, just an indication after a "manipulation." So, I am skeptical to generalize much about this, like libertarians are more likely to be problem drinkers than socialists.

But it is interesting that even the manipulation that caught a person's orientation and there was variance does indicate the cultural influence on individual drinking.

I'm working with a local group focused on reducing our county's underage and binge drinking. My county is among the worse in the state for this. We are taking a public health approach, treating underage and binge drinking as a public health problem. I like the approach, it is far less moralistic, and very data driven. So, I am more interested in research on alcohol than I have been in the past. The research reported on by Science Daily evidences the importance of local culture. I am not convinced that being individualistic or collectivist is just a personality is social psychological (being involved in a collective, team, family, etc) is going to effect one's "orientation" as well as particular belief system. What is interesting is that being the individulist is highly prized in our culture. And locally, individualism is highly, highly valued. But then so is church going, which is an emphasis on the collective (American culture is a tension between the "individual" (an ideal) and the reality of high pressure conformism.

So, is American culture a "risk" factor or a "protective" factor when it comes to alcohol consumption? Of course, influencing the broader culture is not really possible.

In our local situation, just raising awareness that the alcohol problem among underage folks is a greater problem here than in most other places, is the goal. After all, if everyone just thinks the local situation is normal, how do you effect change?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Obama wins the affluent vote

Here is an article from another pollster, one with not as good a reputation as Mark Rasmussen (see below), but who makes a better argument, based on evidence that is not suspectible to the whims of the times or the socially obvious answetr. Mark Penn writes at Politico:

While Obama received record votes from the expanded minority communities, that alone would not have led to victory had he not also secured so much support among the growing professional class — and in doing so went beyond the successful 1996 coalition that also climbed the income ladder to include newly targeted soccer moms. Back then, President Clinton got 38 percent of the vote among those making over $100,000. This year Obama earned 49 percent of that vote. He also got 52 percent of a new polling category — those making over $200,000 a year who were no longer among the top 1 percent of earners, as they had been in past elections, but were now the top 6 per cent.

I like the explanation. It is not ideological, though it favors the dem's position, it is pretty sociological, esentially that the educated and monied don't work in entreprenuerial enviroments, they work in corporate environments. If you want to be leftist, it is a case of doctors not being entreprenuers anymore, now they are contract other words, many "professionals" have been "proletarianized." The former petty bourgeosie, are now high priced employees. Feeding off the communnal efforts of the clinic and not just on their own billable hours. So, they voted for Obama EVEN though he promised to raise their taxes.

Reaganism lives?

What is fascinating is whether the democrat base is switching from blue collar voters to the educated service economy voters, which is what our economy has been producing. More educated, less religious, more communal. Shudder. A bunch of folks who are creatures of bureaucracies.

Reaganism Lives?

Scott Rasmussen is a respected pollster, but when he tries to become the pundit, well, propagandist is probably a better term. Much is being made, of his article in the WSJ here TownHall repeats the claim and at Instapundit
He cites the following statistics from a poll taken Oct 2(?):

Mr. Obama's tax-cutting message played a key role in this period of economic anxiety. Tax cuts are well-received at such times: 55% of voters believe they are good for the economy. Only 19% disagree and see them as bad policy.

When are tax cuts not popular with voters? Too me, what is surprising is that only 55% thought tax cuts would be good for the economy. So, this seems nothing more than saying Reaganism is nothing more than a truism, which I wouldn't agree with.

Mr. Rasmussen goes on in his argument that Reaganism still lives:

A Rasmussen survey conducted Oct. 2 found that 59% agreed with the sentiment expressed by Reagan in his first inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." Just 28% disagreed with this sentiment. That survey also found that 44% of Obama voters agreed with Reagan's assessment (40% did not). And McCain voters overwhelmingly supported the Gipper.

This survey was taken at a time of great crisis, when gov't needed to act (so many believed) and the blame for the credit collapse was laid at the feet of who? Free enterprise? Nope, gov't, so who would be surprised at such a statistic. Again, what is surprising is not that 59% agreed with the sentiment, that more did not.

I'm not arguing here that Reaganism still lives or not. But, Mr. Rasmussen, as skilled a pollster as he is, should know better than to make the claims he is with this data. This is nothing more than propaganda...Mr. Rasumssen, do you measure pupblic opinion or try to shape it?

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Tom Steiger on GMA

While I'd rather be on the national news for winning a prize, this is better than doing a perp walk with a voice over "professor discovered eating his students"

My "glaring" interview on video here:

Spread the Wealth? What's New?

An Article from Newsweek, here. Expands on my own but with less exasperation.

Who's to blame for polarizing the nation?

An interesting article here from the Dallas Morning News
The author, Wayne Slater, asks whether the two candidates, both vowing to end the polarization, can do it.

I wonder where the polarization came from...not that the tendencies weren't already there, but G.W. Bush, who lost the popular vote, won the presidency with a supereme court decision that said, stop countring ballots, and then governed like he won every state. Any reasonable person would have realized, I have to tread softly, that the nation is seriously divided and my own presidency is not as legitimate as the past few. Instead, he did the exact opposite, and even with 911, where he had tremendous backing, instead, he polarized the world and the nation..leading to the divisive 2004 election, which Mr. Slater points to as an important event in the polarization of the nation.

If Senator Obama wins, he has to be cautious not to overstep, given that the Dems are likely to increase their numbers in Congress. People are not so much voting for democrats as much as voting against republicans.

If Senator McCain wins, he will have to work with a democrat congress. He gets nothing done if he continues with the polarization and demonization of the other side.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Ignorance abounds in the discussion of U.S. tax system

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, November 2, 2008

Are Americans so dumb that they don’t realize that any tax is “redistributive?” Don’t Americans know that we have had a progressive income tax for nearly a century? What do they teach in high school these days? How about college?

The 16th Amendment to the Constitution (something our presidents are sworn to defend) legally established the federal income tax and shortly following ratification in 1913, upon our entry in World War I, responsible leaders introduced a “graduated” or “progressive income tax” to pay for the war (unlike how we funded the Iraq war). The lowest rate was 1 to 2 percent with a top rate of 15% on individuals who earned more than $1.5 million. The progressive income tax has been with us ever since.

Ronald Reagan began to curb it, to reduce the progressivity of the tax structure. Today, we have the spectacle of politicians suggesting that a progressive income tax is somehow “un-American” or “socialist.” Some believe the idea for the progressive income tax came from none other than Adam Smith, a well known “socialist” to be sure. From Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature of and Causes of the Wealth of Nations: “It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

If Americans knew their own history; if they knew even how American institutions worked, just a basic sense of how public goods like schools, police, roads, prisons, fire houses, libraries and our courts were financed then we’d be discussing a completely reasonable question: is now the time to introduce more progressivity into our tax structure or not? Or, even, has the time come to flatten the progressive income tax?

Instead, we have regular Americans parading their ignorance. For instance, as reported in the 10/16/08 Dallas Morning News the Krajewskis from Albuquerque said they didn’t like the idea of subsidizing others. Do you mean like the students at the University of New Mexico? Or a local Albuquerque community college? Or maybe public elementary school students? How about police protection? Should that only extend to taxpayers? Or people “willing to work” (the unemployment rate there is right at 5%.) Twelve percent of Albuquerque’s population is 65 and older, collecting Social Security, which is an income transfer from younger workers to retirees—a subsidy. I am sure these informed citizens object to the $28 billion spent on food stamps. Do they object as much to the agricultural subsidies and other corporate welfare that amounts to $96 billion a year according to the conservative CATO Institute?

There have been attempts to do away with the progressive income tax. Steve Forbes ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1996 and in 2000 on his flat tax idea. He didn’t win and his idea didn’t make it to the Republican platform. Others have called for a national sales tax to replace the income tax, a value added tax, and other ideas. But so far, none have even come close to replacing the tax system that has served the US to pay for World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

At its outset, there were those who claimed this system was socialism, communism, even ‘devilism,” but the system has served us pretty well. Nevertheless, serious discussions about income taxes around issues of fairness should never be categorically dismissed. Things are different today than in 1913 and maybe the tax system no longer serves the public interest.

I am exasperated with the stupidity that equates an income tax with socialism. And yes, that makes me an elitist. I do think that people should know something of what they speak, especially when there is so much information available at the tip of our fingers through the Internet. We have the most educated populace in the world, we should expect more of them. Instead, we make a virtue of being dumb and uninformed as a post. We have abandoned the responsibility of being informed about the choices we make! This is outrageous, sad, and dangerous because democracy requires an informed citizenry, which we no longer seem to have.

One last blast at the ignoramuses: With the socialist revolution in 1959, Cuba abolished its income tax. A graduated income tax was introduced in the mid 1990s amid a liberalizing of the socialist economy due to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Changes viewed as moves toward free markets.
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