Boring Economics Can Bridge a Divided America

Economics may be boring, but the lack of emotion could be just what a divided nation needs to have a civil conversation about taxes, trade, savings and jobs.

Economics may be boring, but the lack of emotion could be just what a divided nation needs to have a civil conversation about taxes, trade, savings and jobs.

America is deeply and perhaps even dangerously divided. Common ground has become almost extinct. But Miles Kimball says one unsuspecting subject could bridge the partisan divide – economics.

Kimball, who is a blog-writing economist, says economics could work to bring people together because it is, for lack of a better word, boring.

Unlike health care, border walls and Russian election meddling that spark emotional debates, Kimball says economics is unemotional. Economics is so unemotional, it can put you to sleep, as evidenced daily in college classrooms across America.

Politicians, Kimball explains, may not be the best interpreters of economics. They tend to turn it into an “us versus them” narrative and campaign promises, which are either unrealistic or counterproductive.

Take, for example, the Republican call for a “border adjustment,” which would raise the price of imports and cut taxes on exports in the name of preserving US jobs, reducing the trade deficit and raising revenue. Kimball said it might do the opposite by strengthening the US dollar, which in turn may encourage imports and dampen exports.

Miles Kimball is Eaton Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado and a regular Quartz columnist and blogger.

Miles Kimball is Eaton Professor of Economics at the University of Colorado and a regular Quartz columnist and blogger.

"The trouble is that border adjustment doesn’t do much to give the rest of the world access to the US dollars it would need to buy US goods,” Kimball explains. "Border adjustment is like trying to sell cars by giving car buyers a discount, but then failing to give them any financing.”

A better idea, Kimball says, is to boost the lagging US savings rate by automatically enrolling all workers in retirement savings plans, which would provide more money to lend abroad to buy US products.

"With Americans doing more saving, the United States wouldn’t need to borrow as much from the rest of the world to build houses and factories – and the trade balance would improve,” Kimball wrote for Quartz Media. "More exports and fewer imports would, in turn, lead to more of the types of jobs that many people want. In addition to lending abroad to finance US exports, extra saving would mean more funds for investments in the United States that would also lead to better-paying jobs.”

This is clearly not an idea that has occurred to Congress, which recently voted to eviscerate a Department of Labor ruling that cleared the way for state-sponsored retirement savings plans, including one in Oregon. Thee also is discussion in the Trump administration to drop the tax deferral on money going into company-sponsored 401(k) accounts, which would be used to offset predicted revenue losses from the President’s proposed tax cut.

Kimball puts the onus on economists, teachers and journalists to find ways to make economics as interesting as economic disasters. He believes the curiosity of Americans of all political stripes can be piqued.

"It’s clear that American voters on both sides of the political divide are invested in topics like jobs, trade, retirement and the plight of the working and middle classes.” he writes. "But often, hot-button issues such as immigration come to dominate the conversation about these subjects – perhaps because most people lack a solid grasp of the real forces that have created economic problems, or the mechanisms that might be able to address them.”

To follow Kimball’s suggestion, politicians might consider scheduling town hall meetings devoted to Economics 101. They might be less raucous and more informative.

Four Ways to Maximize the Value of Your Research

Maximize the value of your consumer research by listening to, engaging and sharing with key stakeholders. And make sure research findings are rendered to answer the “So what?” question.

Maximize the value of your consumer research by listening to, engaging and sharing with key stakeholders. And make sure research findings are rendered to answer the “So what?” question.

How many times have you spent significant time and budget on research to inform and enable leadership and other stakeholders to make wise business decisions…only to hope something—anything—happens with those insights once the report presentation is finished? Here are four things you can do to help ensure what you present is meaningful, impactful, and maximizing your ROI.

1.         Listen: Take time to engage with stakeholders, get their input and really understand the challenges they’re trying to solve. Think of them as peers rather than people to convince or obstacles in your way. (Pro tip: leverage your research skills and ask open-ended questions.)

Janice Cogdill, who took her MBA at Willamette University, spends her days investigating how to make websites and apps more effective and efficient for the people who use them. She also leads consumer-obsessed teams and drives double-digit sales growth for her Fortune 100 clients/employers. You can reach her at jenicacogdill@gmail.com or www.linkedin.com/in/jcogdill. 

Janice Cogdill, who took her MBA at Willamette University, spends her days investigating how to make websites and apps more effective and efficient for the people who use them. She also leads consumer-obsessed teams and drives double-digit sales growth for her Fortune 100 clients/employers. You can reach her at jenicacogdill@gmail.com or www.linkedin.com/in/jcogdill

2.         Involve: Further increase stakeholder buy-in by involving them, at least at a high-level, throughout the whole process. For example, hold kickoff meetings to get everyone on the same page and communicate updates on the schedule. Harness the power of qualitative research by having them observe sessions, even if only remotely. (Pro tip: ensure they observe more than one session…trust me on this one.)

3.         Share: Take ownership of raising awareness and sharing what you know about the consumer. A study conducted in 2014 by Tom De Ruyck and Anouk Willems found that 92% of insight professionals believe their research was worth sharing with colleagues, only 65% shared among their organizations. Sometimes seemingly unrelated departments, teams, or roles—often those without access to research—find tremendous value from what might initially seem like irrelevant research. (Pro tip: this is a great way to increase your visibility across the organization)

4.         Tailor: While findings might be interesting, they won’t get any traction if they’re not useful. I’m surprised at how often research reports intended for leadership are heavy on descriptive findings and light on the specific, short messages that answer, “so what?” On the flipside, overly strategic reports don’t always meet the needs of design teams. Tailoring your report might mean developing or re-organizing materials, but this isn’t overly difficult or time consuming if you’ve implemented the initial three points. (Pro tip: providing actionable value for each audience is how you generate value for yourself as well.)

Americans Vote with Their Feet in Landslide Counties

The purple on America’s political map is fading away, replaced by super red and super blue areas that deliver landslide victories and give voters a rare chance to find a neighbor with an opposing point of view.

The purple on America’s political map is fading away, replaced by super red and super blue areas that deliver landslide victories and give voters a rare chance to find a neighbor with an opposing point of view.

More Americans live in polarized communities, which has resulted in a growing number of local landslide elections, according to an analysis posted on fivethirtyeight.com.

From 1992 to 2016, fivethirtyeight.com says the number of US counties that delivered landslide votes for a presidential candidate – with margins exceeding 50 percent – “exploded from 93 to 1,196, or more than a third of the nation’s counties.”

“More than 61 percent of voters cast ballots in counties that gave either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump at least 60 percent of the major-party vote last November. That’s up from 50 percent of voters who lived in such counties in 2012 and 39 percent in 1992 – an accelerating trend that confirms America’s political fabric, geographically, is tearing apart.”

These election landslides aren’t the result of gerrymandering districts or stagnant politics. They suggest Americans are voting with their feet or live in areas becoming collectively politicized by economic or social conditions such as high jobless or opioid addiction rates.

Fivethirtyeight.com notes Trump carried the large, traditionally Democratic counties that include Utica (New York), Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) and Charleston (West Virginia) with 20 percent or larger margins. Meanwhile, Clinton did the same in San Diego County, Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) and Henrico County (Virginia), which were landslide GOP counties in the 1988 election.

“These examples prove that communities can change allegiances over time,” writes David Wasserman on the public opinion analysis website. “But most places just aren’t budging – in fact, they’re doubling down.” The picture these statistics paint is one of super red and super blue counties, with fewer and fewer purple swing counties.

A byproduct of this geographical polarization is “an entire generation of youth will grow up without much exposure to alternative points of view,” says Wasserman. “If you think out political climate is toxic now, think for a moment about how nasty politics could be in 20 or 30 years from now.s

People who live in landslide counties may be skeptical of how deeply and evenly the nation is divided. Wasserman points out Trump won the presidential election by eking out relatively narrow victories in traditionally blue states, while losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. “But if you feel like you hardly know anyone who disagrees with you, you’re not alone,” he says. “Chances are the election was a landslide in your backyard."

Our Changing Brains and the Consequences

The point of polling and market research is to probe human perceptions, but it’s worth taking stock for a moment about the changing ways humans use their brains that hold those perceptions.

The point of polling and market research is to probe human perceptions, but it’s worth taking stock for a moment about the changing ways humans use their brains that hold those perceptions.

The human mind evolved as it coped with natural forces. Now the human mind may be evolving to manage natural forces.

Less mental energy is needed today to survive the dangers and predators surrounding us. We spend more mental energy on reshaping – or at least trying to reshape – our environment. A key difference is that human selection is replacing natural selection.

Humans, like other living things, still adapt to their circumstances. And they evolve as a result of random mutations. But increasingly, says John Hawks, an anthropologist and geneticist at the University of Wisconsin, humans have the ability to exert more control over our own evolution. We are on the verge of picking out genes like we would jeans.

Natural selection brought us to where we are now, so where will human-guided selection takes us over time? It is a good question, and not a question that should be pushed off into the future. The tools to influence our genetic future are already at hand.

Human-guided selection isn’t reserved to genetics. We are using our brains now very differently than our primitive forebears. When man hunted and gathered for subsistence, brain power was focused on finding dinner. Contemporary humans devote a lot of their mental capacity to sifting through data, words and visual content. Think of how many different scenes you see in a typical TV ad versus the slower-paced ads of yesteryear. Our minds are trained to cycle through material faster, and we get bored quickly if the pace slows.

Invention has been an important part of human adaptation. The discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel undoubtedly involved chance and observation. Modern man has evolved from invention to innovation. We imagine unforeseen possibilities, such as a driverless car or voice-activated in-home helpers.

Not that long ago, if your father was a shoemaker, you became a shoemaker – usually in the same village. Now humans constantly re-invent themselves, skipping from one career to another and moving from town to city.

Not all of our innovation and re-invention has turned out great. Mankind is haunted by the destructive capacity of the weapons of war we have created. Instead of mass epidemics of infectious diseases that kill millions of people around the globe, we have created substances like opioids that can if abused cause epidemics.

While this blog is dedicated to the art and science of measuring human perceptions and viewpoints through disciplined research, it is worthwhile to take a moment to think about the brains where those perceptions and viewpoints abide. It could genuinely be said that people think differently now than they did millennia ago. As the pace of change and adaptation continue to accelerate, people in the future may be thinking differently sooner than we can imagine.

The process of selection doesn’t have a pause button. But there has been a monumental and probably irreversible shift on what and who influences that selection process. Whether preordained or coincidental, the human capacity to think, reason and dominate means the earth’s future is more in our hands than ever before. How we use our hands and our brains could well decide our own fate far beyond the boundaries of evolution.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Judge a Survey by Its Sample

Before you look at top line poll or market research results, flip to the page describing the sample to make sure it matches your target audience so the findings have validity as the basis for your political or marketing campaigns.

Before you look at top line poll or market research results, flip to the page describing the sample to make sure it matches your target audience so the findings have validity as the basis for your political or marketing campaigns.

Critiques of surveys usually zero in on slanted questions that produce skewed answers. But these are easy pickings for critics. A greater research sin, but more difficult to identify, is conducting a survey with a bad sample that fails to reflect a target audience.
 
A favorite example is the telephone survey conducted for a homebuilder association interested in a marketing campaign aimed at first-time homebuyers. The results were meaningless because more than 50 percent of respondents said they were 65 years or older, an unlikely cohort to purchase their first home.
 
Well-crafted questions are certainly important to generate valid findings. But well-intentioned questions can’t overcome a faulty sample. You can ask all the right questions about teen fashion, but get pointless results by interviewing mostly middle-age women.
 
High-profile goofs by public opinion pollsters are often attributable poorly designed samples. Instead of using a sample of all registered voters, clients like to focus on likely voters. Why ignore 40 percent of registered voters when the strongest base of support is among those less likely to vote? Ignoring passive or disenfranchised voters can prove disastrous for candidates, as it did in the trend-disruptive 2016 presidential election..
 
Public opinion pollsters and market researchers understand that valuable survey research starts with sample design, not a questionnaire. Savvy consumers of research should expect a heavy dose of discussion about sample composition to reflect as fairly as possible the views of your intended audience.
 
No sample is ever perfect, so ask your pollster or market researcher how they will make it as close to perfect as possible. Will they conduct a telephone survey using both land and cell phones? What are the demographic characteristics they will use to create sample quotas to ensure a representative sample?  After the interviews are completed, will they use weighting to ensure data reflects opinions of hard to reach groups, such as those age 18 to 34 or people of color?
 
There are a lot of ways surveys can go haywire. But one of the most fundamental flaws is sample design. Just remember, using messages that work for retirees looking for condos in Cancun probably won’t be convincing to a young family seeking a low-cost bungalow close to a good school.

Expressing Your Mind to Someone With A Voting Card

 Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg introduced a Town Hall feature that makes it easy to find out who represents you in Congress and the legislature and just as easy to contact them to express your view on an issue. Photo Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

 Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg introduced a Town Hall feature that makes it easy to find out who represents you in Congress and the legislature and just as easy to contact them to express your view on an issue.

Photo Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News

Facebook has made it easier for people to share a piece of their mind with their elected officials. It also has eliminated the excuse that people don’t know who represents them in Congress or state legislature.

Mashable has provided a step-by-step primer on how to access and use Facebook’s “Town Hall” feature, which you can use either on a computer or mobile device.

After you find the setting, you enter your address and Facebook brings up the names of the men and women who represent you, allows you to follow them or makes it easy to contact them. Facebook lets you call, send a message (on Facebook Messenger) or go to your representative’s Facebook page to post your comments.

The Town Hall feature may be in part Mark Zuckerberg’s atonement for aiding and abetting fake news through Facebook. Even though the feature may be slightly misnamed – it isn’t really a town hall, but an easy way to vent to your elected representatives, it is a convenient tool that could spur more participation in the policy and political processes of government.

The genius may be in its simplicity. Facebook has simply used databases to correlate where you live with congressional and legislative districts and, in some cases, local jurisdictions. Then it has rolled up the process of finding the appropriate address, phone number or social media site into a clickable button. Constituents can concentrate on what they want to say, and not struggle finding our where to say it.

Under President Obama and continuing in the Trump administration, online political chatter has increased exponentially. But much of it is negative and undirected. Facebook Town Hall affords an opportunity to direct a specific message to someone who actually could vote for or against a bill on your recommendation.

Facebook has made it easier to express your mind and be heard by someone with a vote and, in the process, contributed to increased civic participation. But Facebook is not immune from a polarized electorate and its Town Hall could reflect those same hostile divisions.