Michael Moore has a new column on his web site taking the view that Americans by and large are foursquare opposed to bailing out Wall St banks on the terms proposed by Paulson and the closed leadership in Congress. He adduces as evidence of this mass hue and cry, emails and phone calls delivered to Congresscritters, en masse, to wit:
Millions of phone calls and emails hit Congress so hard it was as if Marshall Dillon, Elliot Ness and Dog the Bounty Hunter had descended on D.C. to stop the looting and arrest the thieves.
This example of a vivid imagination was most likely the result of watching too much television. As Nate Silver, at fivethirtyeight.com, has observed, News Accounts May Overstate Public Opposition to Bailout. The news folk ultimately draw their information from polls taken on the question. Silver observes variation in public sentiment:
While some polls show opposition to the bailout, others show indifference or lukewarm support. These result principally from differences in question wording, as the public does not know very much about the bailout (neither Presidential candidate did a good job of explaining it to them on Friday night) and is heavily swayed by the tone of the question.
He suggests that these variations are influenced by the framing of the problem in the poll question, showing examples and the response. In the case of a Rasmussen poll, respondents were asked:
"Do you favor or oppose the economic rescue plan now being negotiated by Congress and the Bush Administration?"
…50 percent said they opposed the plan and just 24 percent said they supported it.
…little supporting detail is provided to the respondent, other tha[n] two very unpopular insti[t]utions (The Bush Administration and Congress) are mentioned.
In the case of a Pew Research Research framing of the same question, viz.:
"As you may know, the government is potentially investing billions to try and keep financial institutions and markets secure. Do you think this is the right thing or the wrong thing for the government to be doing?"
[The resulting response was]:
…57 percent of people support the bailout, as compared to 30 percent who opposite it.
…the proposal has arguably been spun in a favorable way to the respondent. The warm term "secure" is used, but there is no description of the amount of money involved, nor whom the money will be going to.
This brings to mind a scene about polls in Yes, Prime Minister. Sir Humphrey Appleby demonstrates to Bernard Woolley how a respondent to a survey can draw opposite conclusions:
Sir Humphrey (SH): "You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don’t want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?"
Bernard Woolley(BW): "Yes"
SH: "Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?"
SH: "Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?"
SH: "Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?"
SH: "Do you think they respond to a challenge?"
SH: "Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?"
BW: "Oh…well, I suppose I might be."
SH: "Yes or no?"
SH: "Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can’t say no to that. So they don’t mention the first five questions and they publish the last one."
BW: "Is that really what they do?"
SH: "Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren’t many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result."
SH: "Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?"
SH: "Are you worried about the growth of armaments?"
SH: "Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?"
SH: "Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?"
SH: "Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?"
SH: "There you are, you see Bernard. The perfect balanced sample."
The case Silver makes undermines the prevailing view averred in the news media that American sentiment towards the bailout proposals may be characterized as strong opposition. Insofar as the detail of any proposal has been made known to the public by Congress or the Treasury via their White House spokesmodel, one might expect heads to be exploding across the land, from sea to shining sea. It is more likely, given how little has been revealed, that people haven’t any clue what they’re supporting or opposing, seeing how so little in the way of clear explanation has been in the offing.