Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

More on the reification of constructs

I'm on the list to take on-line surveys by Polling Point, and I often do it, more out of curiosity to see what they're up to than a desire to contribute to the advance of social science. Yesterday I took their "post-election" survey.

First they asked an open-ended question: What's the single most important issue facing the country? Actually I couldn't give them a straight answer, because I believe we have some inextricably entwined major problems: looming environmental catastrophe, the unsustainable budget and trade deficits and vast unfunded liabilities of the federal government, the catastrophe in Iraq (which along with the insanely bloated military budget in general just makes the previous item all the more intractable, among other grievous harms), and the erosion of the constitutional regime and rule of law without which we cannot mobilize to solve this Chinese puzzle of crises.

Another task they put before me was to indicate, on a continuum, where I came down on the tradeoff between protecting the environment, and protecting jobs and our standard of living. I had to skip this question, because like all sane people who know their ass from a strip mine, I know that there is no such tradeoff. Protecting the environment is one of the highest priorities if we want to have any chance of preserving jobs and our standard of living.

They also asked me to make a similar choice between raising the income tax and raising sales taxes in order to close my state's budget deficit. Again, I could not answer, this time because, while I prefer a progressive income tax to most sales taxes, I do believe that there is an urgent need to increase the gasoline tax in Massachusetts -- as responsible, non-partisan analysts have proposed -- because we have an urgent need to maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure and face a huge shortfall in needed funds. At the same time, a gasoline tax is one of the best ways to reduce fuel consumption and begin to make progress toward limiting climate change. Part of the revenue could be used to provide a refundable tax credit for low-income taxpayers, offsetting the cost to them, while improvements in mass transit will greatly benefit poor and low income people. Well, there was no way for me to explain all that by clicking at a point on their scale.

I could go on at some length, but the general point should be clear. Polling data on issues is often misleading because the pollsters frame the issues according to the world views imposed by sound bite politics. Are moral values among the most important reasons why I choose candidates? You bet! Moral values like not starting wars of aggression, and not letting greedheads market toxic pseudo-food to children. But I know that if I answer "yes" to the question, they'll presume that I mean that homosexuals shouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools. And so on.

I'm not sure what to do about this. The polls merely reflect actually existing political discourse. If I were writing the questionnaire, I might do it differently, but I expect the professional bloviators and political consultants wouldn't find my results very useful, since they wouldn't fit into their prefabricated categories.

At least Polling Point does give you the chance to tell them what you thought of the survey. Assuming anybody actually reads that part, they might do better next time.

1 comment:

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