The Politics of Pessimism

Joe Keohane recently had a very provocative article (“The crime wave in our head“) in the Dallas Morning News raising the issue Americans’ misperceptions of crime. Koehane’s argument is based on trends in reported by Gallup polls that I’ve been using in my public opinion lecture for years: Americans think that crime is going up when crime rates are actually going down.

Public perceptions of increasing crime have remained about 50% for much of the last two decadesIn 2009, almost 3 out of 4 Americans believed that crime had increased in the last year.

Citizens were slightly more optimistic about their local communities. Only about half of all Americans thought crime was worse in their area.

Pretty consistently over the last two decades, over half of all citizens believed crime was getting worse in their own communities

The problem is that FBI crime statistics indicate that the crime rates have generally been dropping. For example, preliminary results from 2009 indicate that crime rates actually dropped in every category in the first half of 2009.

Violent crime Murder Forcible rape Robbery Aggravated assault Property crime Burglary Motor vehicle theft Arson
-4.4 -10.0 -3.3 -6.5 -3.2 -6.1 -2.5 -18.7 -8.2

As Keohane points out, democracy requires an informed public. The problem here is that misperception leaves us solving problems we don’t have:

If we believe crime is on the march in the streets all over the country, it influences our beliefs on critical issues from gun control to sentencing laws, from how we run our prisons to how much money we spend on law enforcement. Misinformation on the part of the public makes for bad lawmaking on the part of the government.

I think something similar happened with public schools. On one hand, note that parents (those of us with the most contact with schools) have much higher opinions of education than the public in general. In fact, Gallup has found satisfaction with education has pretty consistently been above 75% over the last two decades. In fact, that survey found that in 2009 more parents of public school students were “completely satisfied” (33%) with their child’s education than somewhat dissatisfied” (15%) and “completely dissatisfied” (9%) combined. Given all of the hopes and expectations we have for out kids… that’s not too bad.

Ratings of schools-parents vs general public

Certainly, lots of people were complaining, but those closest to the system thought their kids’ schools were generally on the right track.

There’s also a gap between perceptions of our local schools and those of the nation. A 2006 Gallup study found that Americans gave their local schools much higher grades that the nation’s schools in general. In fact, while only 21% of Americans gave the nation’s schools a grade of A or B, 49% of people gave their local schools those grades (and 64% of parents gave an A or B to the school of their oldest child).

We have met the enemy... and he is us.

Either we all live in communities with above average schools or we don’t know as much about other people’s schools as we think. Either way, it appears that we may have exaggerated the problem with schools and passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and created an elaborate testing system that created a new set of problems (like teaching to the test). That may explain why only 21% of Americans believe that NCLB improved America’s schools while 29% believe it made them worse.

A little skepticism can be healthy. Too much skepticism may be very expensive.

How closely should elected officials follow public opinion? How well founded were the Founders’ fears of direct democracy?


The White House flickr page


Originally uploaded by The White House

If you’re looking for White House photos you can use in lectures, etc, the White House’s flickr stream has lots of very cool images in high resolution. I wish everyone made images like this available.

Lessons in leadership

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst recently took it upon himself to criticize a play being produced by a student at Tarleton State University. As part of a class, a student chose to stage “Corpus Christi,” a controversial play that portrays Christ and his disciples as gay.  Dewhurst’s press release read (in part):

Every citizen is entitled to the freedom of speech, but no one should have the right to use government funds or institutions to portray acts that are morally reprehensible to the vast majority of Americans.

As Ralph K.M. Haurwit wrote on his “The Lowdown on Higher ed” blog, Dewhurt’s reading of free speech is not widely accepted.  Some might say that the idea that the state only allowing students to pursue government-approved topics at universities is probably morally reprehensible (to borrow a phrase). After all, only allowing speeches and productions approved by the government gets you North Korea and their elaborate productions in honor of “beloved leader.” Allowing dissent can be a pain. However, it’s much better than the alternative.

Happy Birthday, Beloved leader

State approved entertainment: Happy Birthday, Beloved leader!

Dewhurst’s tactical mistake is more fundamental. What Dewhurst managed to do is upgrade this production from a show seen by a handful of students into state-wide bit political theatre. Giving free publicity to this production elevated this student to the status of free speech hero and lowered a state official to the role of censor.

Now all of the productions scheduled for today have now been cancelled. Apparently, the demands of political correctness are so strong that all of the class’s assigned plays had to be shut down because one was deemed offensive. The university’s initial promise to protect free speech was lost in the flood of threatening emails. Now this has become an ongoing issue.

Sometimes the best response is no response. There was only one way to help this student spread their offensive message statewide–and Dewhurst found it.

– – – – – – – –

Update: The Rose Marine Theatre has retracted their offer to host the students plays after a threat of violence.

Molly Ivins

Politics Daily has a story (“Kathleen Turner as ‘Kick-Ass’ Molly Ivins“) on the premiere of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins” at Philadelphia Theatre Company.

It’s odd to have the story of such a decidedly Texas character open so far from Texas. Anyway, I thought some of her Texas fans would like an update on the show.

Gohmert calls for saving the Senate… from voters?

The 17th Amendment

The 17th Amendment

Today, unhappy over the passage of federal health care reform, Congressman Louie Gohmert (Tyler) called for a constitutional amendment returning the choice of U.S. Senators to state legislature. In a press release from Congressman Gohmert’s web site, he spells out his reasons:

Ever since the safeguard of State legislatures electing U.S. Senators was removed by the 17th Amendment in 1913, there has been no check or balance on the Federal power grab for the last 97 years.

Gohmert makes an interesting argument for bringing state-oriented representation into the U.S. Senate. According to this view the states are important political units that need more specific representation. To take their proper place in our system of federalism, the governments of the states need representation selected by the governments of the states.

The general “states rights” argument is common. However, Gohmert’s argument makes the unusual leap of suggesting that legislators are better equipped to choose those who will look after the interest of the states. To me, the most puzzling aspects of Gohmert’s claim is the assumption that senators chosen by state legislators would be any different. Anyone who has read the accounts of how Nineteenth century state legislators chose senators or members of the electoral college must have some doubts about Gohmert’s claim.

Gohmert seems to base his argument on the assumption that the rise of federal power coincides with the ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment made election of senators by voters mandatory (it’s worth noting that before this amendment most state were already using elections). Unlike Gohmert, I don’t  believe that America suffered greatly in the Twentieth century. Gohmert sees rising federal power, I tend to notice that the last century saw the rise of America as a global economic, political, and military leader. Along the way, we addressed critical failures on racial and gender equality. I’m always puzzled when people who claim to believe that America is the greatest country in the world so adamantly resent the politics that made it so. Our political system has its faults, but there’s not much arguing that something went right.

Gohmert’s appeal is a lost cause. The argument that voters are not wise enough to look after the interests of their states doesn’t make the best campaign slogan. And, given the reputation of the Texas legislature, telling Texas voters that they’re less qualified that their legislators isn’t a very flattering comparison.

Who abolished state treasurer’s office?

According to Karl Rove’s new book, the demise of the office of state treasurer in Texas came at the hands of Democrats: “Kay Bailey Hutchison was elected state treasurer, succeeding Ann Richards. Democrats then abolished the position, which made me wonder if political payback is about the only grounds on which Democrats abolish government posts. Hutchison later became a U.S. senator.”

As PoliFact Texas points out in a recent article, this claim is highly questionable and rates a “false” on their “Truth-O-Meter.” The effort was bi-partisan and came after Kay Bailey Hutchison left the office in the hands of a Democrat appointed by Ann Richards. In fact, many Republicans weren’t fond of Ann Richard’s use of the office as a springboard to the governorship.Registering a false on the Truth-O-Meter

Besides creating a mistaken impression about what happen to the position of state treasurer, Karl Rove’s claim illustrates how he contributed to the failures of the Bush presidency. While George W. Bush’s natural inclination was to work with anyone–regardless of party, Rove and a few others insisted on politicizing everything and separating the President from his Democratic friends in Congress. This contributed to Bush’s inability to win more victories in Congress and the continuation of the bitter partisanship Bush promised to end.

When people ask why Bush was more effective at working with others when he was Governor than when he became President, the decision to give Karl Rove a major position on the White House staff looms large. Rove may have helped Bush win the presidency (although I suspect his impact was greatly overrated) he hamstrung Bush with a divisive approach to leadership that greatly diminished the Bush legacy.

Not everything in governing has to be partisan. If the Obama White House would learn from the failure of Karl Rove, they could spare themselves a lot  of trouble.

Super subsidies

The state has now announced that taxpayers will be pitching in $31.2 million dollars to support the 2011 Super Bowl. The state reasons that local governments need help with expenses associated with such events and people attending the event will be paying taxes on hotels, souvenirs, and alcohol. The study the state is using estimates the game will generate a total of $612 million in economic activity. If that holds up, the state is putting up the equivalent of almost 20% of what people will spend at the Super Bowl. Are state taxes that high?

The projection that the Super Bowl will attract 584,000 Texans (not including those from the DFW area) and 147,00 people from out-of-state seems pretty optimistic. That’s about 3% of Texans. I know that Jerry Jones tries to sell a lot of “standing room” tickets, but …

Even if the event will produce $31 million in additional state tax revenue, Texans don’t have to get stuck with the tab. The NFL has plenty of money and professional football looks less like a public good every year. The launch of the NFL network, limits on highlights shown on other networks, suing people who sell “Who Dat” t-shirts, and other practices have helped the NFL squeeze extra dollars out of fans in a way that does not reflect the public interest. Jerry Jones and the NFL have been ruthlessly capitalistic in taking fans’ money whenever they hold the power. I don’t know why were not playing by the usual rules of free enterprise for the Super Bowl. Texans might ask why we are putting on a big party for Jerry Jones in the stadium that taxpayers subsidized?

This is only $1.25 per Texan. However, this kind of subsidy looks bad when state agencies are being asked to give back 5% of their budget. I’ve been a Cowboys fans since the days of  Don Meredith, but there comes a point when Texans need to ask how much money we should be pouring into the extravagant side high school, college, and professional sports at a time when so many students are seeing their basic education suffer. Evidently, they’re a lower priority than the people expected on the 600 private jet trips to North Texas expected for the event.

Maybe Rick Perry can take a break from railing against “socialism” coming out of Washington and stop the welfare party for Jerry Jones in his backyard.


Update:  Maybe we could pay off the remaining debt on the $60 millions Houston forked out to keep the Oilers in Houston before putting more money into pleasing another pro franchise.  According to the Houston Chronicle (“A Costly Wonder“) Houston still faces a debt and interest payments that will total up to $48 million for fixing up the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”