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August 2012
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Brand Power

Kids are more likely to drink milk if it comes in a cup with Ronald McDonald's photo emblazoned on the side.

It seems something similar happens in politics.

Bill Bishop reports on a new poll of rural voters in several swing states.  The poll gave voters two different positions on immigration and asked them which they preferred. In some cases, the positions were attributed to the Democratic and Republican parties; in others, there were no party labels.  The result:

Rural voters supported the Republican position when the statements were labeled “Republican” or "Democratic." 

 When the same positions didn't have party labels, rural voters supported for the Democratic position.

See the chart below, from The Monkey Cage. (Red and Blue bars refer to each party's position, not to the political affiliation of the voters.)


Do-nothing or die

Here in one chart, courtesy of political scientist Tobin Grant is why Congress has an approval rating of just 10%, an all-time low.


As of today, according to the Library of Congress’s “Thomas” site, the 112th Congress has passed only 173 bills. You have to go back to the 1870s to find a less productive Congress.

And it's not as if there aren't lots of problems that need to be addressed. By the end of the year, for example, the country will go off a "fiscal cliff" of tax increases and spending cuts nobody wants.

Maybe after the November election, the incumbents who lost can come together with the incumbents who won and do what has so far escaped them -- work together. One way or another, the goal that drove one of the partys --- making Obama a one-term president -- will be moot.

Behind the brouhaha

BrouhahaThe brouhaha over Gov. Romney's complaint that nearly half the population doesn't pay taxes and "is dependent on the government" misses the real significance of what he said.

It's true that about 46% of the population pays no federal income taxes, but -- as has been amply reported elsewhere -- nearly everyone with a job pays payroll taxes and, if they don't pay income taxes, it's because their income is too low or nonexistent.

According to a widely cited report by the libertarian Mercatus Center, 49% of Americans live in households that include at least one person collecting some kind of government benefit, including Social Security and Medicare as well as such means-tested programs as food stamps, Medicaid, and unemployment.   

But another, under-reported issue lurks within those numbers. It was well summarized way back in March by a U.S. Congressman who is reputed to be an expert on the federal budget. 

When he studied government "transfers" (another word for "entitlements") he was shocked. Here's what he found:

"...the distribution of government transfers has moved away from lower-income households. For instance, in 1979, households in the lowest income quintile received 54 percent of all transfer payments. In 2007, those households received just 36 percent of transfers.
I find that statistic astonishing. There is something wrong with our government transfer programs if they are increasingly steering assistance to the wealthy, while at the same time growing at unsustainable rates."

It seems that a growing share of government transfers are going, not to people with a "victim" complex or to people who feel "entitled" to feed at the government trough, but to people who are relatively well-off. 

This shift has "contributed to increasing inequality," the Congressman concluded. The solution, he suggested, is not to end the programs, but to make sure they reach the people who really need the help. Sounds reasonable to me.

Oh yes, the Congressman's name -- Paul Ryan. 


Polarized nation


How did we get into a situation where one of the presidential candidates appears to be writing off half the electorate?

Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hetherington have produced three charts that may have the answer. I've posted some of these before, but it's worth putting them together again.

The first chart shows that the major parties' voting records haven't been this far apart since the Civil War.

Low numbers indicate that the two parties basically voted the same; high numbers, that they were deeply divided. (The colors don't stand for the parties, but for the different houses of Congress.) The data includes voting on all issues, not just the traditional hot buttons of entitlements and the size of government.  

Party polarizationThe second chart shows that party rank and file share the same negative feelings towards the other side as elected officials. 

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans have always had warmer feelings for their own party than for the other. But  hostility toward the other party has accelerated in recent years.

Party feelings
So far, both charts tell a similar story for both parties. But the third graph shows us why Haidt and Hetherington believe "it’s the Republicans who now seem to be more radicalized, energized and opposed to compromise."

This chart measures how much the members of each party say they “trust the government in Washington to do what’s right,” with the possible answers being “just about always,” “most of the time,” or “only some of the time.” 
Party Trust
The long-term trend has been down for years. But Republicans are more sensitive to who controls the White House. When their man is in, they trust government more than Democrats do. When their man is out, they trust it less. 

Most important for our current predicament, according to Haidt and Hetherington, "Republicans showed an unprecedented plunge in trust when Obama took office. They were at a 40-year-high water mark under George W. Bush, and then cascaded to a 50-year-low point — an astonishing 5%  — under Barack Obama. And it’s not just Tea Partiers, it’s nearly all Republicans who distrust government today."

It's not exactly a leap from distrust of government to disdain for those who, in Mitt Romney's words, "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."

By the way, Haidt and Hetherington don't think political polarization is hopeless. They think generational change will bring improvements. They also cite a number of political reforms that could make it easier to attract centrists to both parties. And perhaps in a moment of desperation, they offer the hope that the coming "fiscal cliff" will shock both parties into finally working together.

I hope they're right. But resolving the deep resentment that seems to be the root cause of this polarization will take a lot longer.

The whole article is worth reading. You can access it here.


What's really bugging them?

Muslim protestNo one can read about the attacks on U.S. embassies in Islamic countries without wondering what is really motivating them.

The host of at least one Sunday talk show tried to reduce it to a binary question -- was it a spontaneous reaction to a nutjob film mocking the Prophet Mohammed or was it another set of terrorist attacks? The U.S. representative to the United Nations said it might be both -- spontaneous protests that were exploited by terrorist elements.

I suspect the FBI investigation will prove she's right.

But I think these protests may also be rooted in a deep cultural conflict that would be significant even if there were no terrorists to exploit it.

Bernard Lewis, the 96 year-old author and Middle East expert, writes in his latest book, that the West and the Muslim World have very different political values.

The West values "freedom" above all else. The Muslim world values justice. In the Muslim world, freedom was not a political value until very recently. When Muslims spoke of "freedom," it was in social and legal terms as the opposite of "ensalved."

But what Muslims have always valued is "justice," the sense that they are treated fairly by their rulers and their government. The Arab Awakening of last spring was not a rush to Western style democracy and freedom, but a reaction to widespread corruption and injustice. Remember: it all started because a Tunisian vendor objected to a police officer's extortion attempts.

With that background, it's easier to see how difficult it will be to defuse these and future protests.

Arguing that insulting the Prophet is just an awkward aspect of our freedom of speech will fall on deaf ears. The very concept is irrelevant to them.

What they want is justice -- some demonstration that we respect their religion and are as outraged as if our own faith was being mocked. 


Me or Us?


Just two questions from the latest New York Times/CBS News poll may predict the results of the upcoming presidential election: 

  • “The United States is more successful when the government emphasizes self-reliance and individual responsibility”: 41% of likely voters agree

  • “The United States is more successful when the government emphasizes community and shared responsibility”: 51% agree

The political conventions of the two major parties were essentially built around those two questions, as are their respective candidates' campaigns.

So where likely voters stand on the issue may trump all the negative ads, clever bumper stickers, and robo-calls.


Are you better off?

Pew on economyThere's an old saw that where you stand depends on where you sit.  

That is dramatically portrayed in the chart to the left, which illustrates how Democrats, Independents, and Republicans responded when asked how they would characterize the news they hear about the economy.

According to a recent Pew Research study, Republicans are hearing about four times as much bad news as Democrats and about two-thirds more than Independents.

I've heard several explanations for this. The first is that we all tend to ignore news that doesn't agree with our pre-existing opinions. The second, is that we all tend to watch news programs that agree with our pre-existing opinions. But neither explanation accounts for the wide divergence in the most recent survey.

Political scientist Joseph Cera has an interesting take on this.  At their convention, Republicans focused on the "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" question instead of on recent economic performance.

The way they framed the debate over the economy gave the Democrats the opportunity to highlight how the Obama administration cleaned up a Bush administration mess, rather than having to explain why the recovery has been so slow.

The Democrats' argument got nowhere with Republicans, of course, but it did sway disaffected Democrats and Independent leaners. Pew's most recent surveys appear to reflect this.

Since the "are you better off" question worked so well for Ronald Reagan, it's understandable why the GOP tried to reprise it. But it may have been a big mistake to turn people's attention away from today's sluggish economy and focus it on the even worse economy four years ago.

Where you stand does depend on where you sit.


OtherWise excerpts

Cutting-bookTLNT magazine reprinted a chapter from OtherWise in its July issue. 

Then in their August issue, they ran a chapter from the book on the value of "managerial presence" in getting good results. You can see that one here

Two articles in two months, and I'm not even on the staff.

Those of you who would still like to sample the book might enjoy this excerpt on emotion in the workplace. 

Plus, both links could serve as a good introduction to a web site that appears to be a useful source of information on what it calls "the business of HR."