For those who did not catch wind of it, the Peterson Foundation, which has long had Social Security and Medicare in its crosshairs, held a bizarre set of 19 faux town hall meetings over the previous weekend to scare participants into compliance and then collect the resulting distorted survey data, presumably to use in a wider PR campaign. It’s important to keep tabs on this propaganda effort, since its big budget (the Foundation has a billion dollars to its name), means it will keep hammering away on this topic. But it appears that they overestimated how much public opinion expensively produced and stage-managed presentations can buy.
The brazenness and ham handedness of these so-called “America Speaks” sessions, which have garnered well deserved criticism on the Internet, is probably due to at least two factors: deluded confidence that the average person will fall into line when a confident and well-credentialed presenter makes a pitch and a stunningly naive belief that aggressive efforts to manipulate opinion and mislabel it as polling would not be called out.
Anyone who has come within hailing distance of any kind of polling or survey development or implementation knows well how susceptible the results are to subtle, much the less overt, influence. People are extremely suggestible; that’s why drug trials are double-blind, placebo controlled: the mere knowledge by a researcher that a study participant is getting real meds instead of a placebo is too often signaled to the patient, and the placebo effect (which varies tremendously, but seems to average around 30%) greatly distorts findings. For surveys, a small change in question wording can a surprisingly large impact on results. For instance, “How do you rate the job Obama is doing” will elicit markedly lower marks than “How do you rate the job Obama is doing as President.” Apparently, the second version of the question elevates Obama’s status and reminds respondents of the difficulty of his role. No doubt the “AmericaSpeaks” designers were confident they could use this suggestibility to their advantage.
Several Web accounts by participants have discussed the format of the meetings and the various ways the Peterson crowd tried to stack the deck : David Dayen at FireDogLake (hat tip reader Doug Smith), letsgetitdone at Corrente (here, here, here, and here), and Suzie Madrak. But the most serious salvo came from Benjamin Page and Lawrence Jacobs, who produced a working paper discussing the considerable shortcomings of “deliberative forums” like AmericaSpeaks. From its abstract:
Deliberative forums – including the America Speaks version — are subject to serious pitfalls that make them unreliable as measures of “true” public opinion or as guides to future opinion. Expert analysis of evidence from many sources makes clear that large majorities of Americans strongly support Social Security, oppose benefit cuts (even for the sake of deficit reduction), and prefer to strengthen Social Security finances by raising the payroll tax “cap” or otherwise using progressive taxes. Officials who ignore these views will do so at their peril.
I suggest you read some of these posts, but to give you a flavor, some excerpts, first from FireDogLake:
The entire event was absolutely designed to create a panic about the deficit among the participants.
Slickly produced scare videos talking about the dire straits of the budget were prevalent. Multiple charts and graphs without precise numbers or percentages were handed out. Speakers discussed how “most Americans are concerned about the deficits and debt,” and how we cannot grow our way out of the problem. The current state of the economy, which needs an increase in aggregate demand, mostly in the form of government spending, to avoid a relapse into recession, got a short mention at the beginning of the discussion, an inclusion which seemed forced and tacked-on. Overall, there was about 15 minutes of discussion of the current economic problems, and 5 hours on the deficit. Organizers stressed that their solutions are designed to kick in after the country hits recovery, but the compounded effect of stressing deficits over and over is undeniable. There was no slick video about the need for economic recovery, put it that way….
“Everything must be on the table,” …But all the solutions were very prescribed and very narrow. An authoritative “Options Workbook” sets out potential budget solutions, on the spending and revenue side. 28 pages cover spending cuts, 15 pages cover revenue solutions. And the very first pages of the workbook talk about cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
While the workbook has pages and pages describing the health care system, the final menu of solutions simply list amounts of percentage cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, without mentioning how to achieve those cuts. The options to “achieve savings” in the program include means-testing, raising deductibles and co-pays, increasing the Medicare eligibility age, limiting Medicaid eligibility and voucher-izing Medicare. There are no progressive solutions nor is there anything close to the potential savings achieved in the Affordable Care Act, things like health IT and bundled payments and increased efficiency.
Letsgetitdone pointed to bias at all levels of the process:
The framing of exercises in the decision process continually restricted choices to ones that bring participants back to the supposed problem of a deficit and debt crisis. The web-streamed talks about national conference proceedings and orientations, and the brief constricted discussions of major values issues all worked to fit participants’ thinking to the ideas and frames presented in worksheets and the Federal Budget 101 presentations. Lines of discussion that would have led outside of the intended framing were politely aborted by the facilitators, pleading limited time, and the need to get through the agenda, and give everyone a chance to speak, so that any person developing counter-themes to the major narrative did not have a chance to develop these counter-themes and counter-narratives in the context of the supposedly unbiased process.
He also described them in detail. For instance:
The meeting began in earnest with the facilitator asking the participants:
”Share your name, where you are from, and complete the phrase: And in a sentence, I’d like you to share your greatest hope for the future of the country that your children, grandchildren and future generations will inherit.”
….The question served to orient everyone to think in terms of the future, and also to think of others and the country rather than of themselves. The bias in the question toward collective rather than individual concerns is palpable. But also the question connects up easily to one of the favorite arguments of deficit hawkism, namely that deficits lead to accumulating debts that our children and grandchildren will have to pay off. This proposition is a myth, but clearly, AmericaSpeaks, was trying to connect up to it here.
The amusing part is that the event moderators had trouble force feeding the geese they had thought to stuff with their message. For instance, from Letsgetitdone:
When the primary facilitator stated the agenda and explained its purpose, a number of people immediately called for a discussion of the purpose of the event and questioned whether there really was a fiscal crisis. I pointed to the Government’s option to deficit spend without issuing debt and pointed out that doing this would save nearly $1.4 Trillion in interest costs in 2025, alone, and that, the cumulative effect of a no debt issuance policy would be to eliminate a good part of the deficits projected between now and then. Another participant, active, in the DC non-profit world, mentioned the continuing recession and high levels of unemployment. She pointed out that SS had no immediate fiscal problems, and that the “crisis” was caused by people in the financial industry, who are not the ones being asked to sacrifice, but who are now asking others to do so. Yet another, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, talked about most of the difficulties being due to health care cost increases and the current recession. He denied that there was any long-term fiscal problem. Still others also questioned whether the topic of the meeting was appropriate.
From Suzie Madrak:
For the first time in a long time, I might have some faith in America. Because no matter how many times the facilitators of this event (which was funded heavily by Pete Peterson, the conservative billionaire who wants to cut Social Security) tried to steer us toward cutting Social Security and Medicare, the 3500 or so people who took part in this national town hall weren’t buying it. Sure, there were Fox News junkies here and there, and some cautious, low-information voters who kinda-sorta disagreed, but the majority who attended seemed to have their own ideas about how to solve the deficit “problem.”
You know what most of them wanted to do? Soak the rich — and cut defense spending. (Are you listening, President Obama?)
A post by Page and Jacobs made clear that any objective research on the questions of Social Security and Medicare would find rock-solid support among Americans:
Remarkably, however, AmericaSpeaks got lucky (or perhaps, from Peterson’s point of view, unlucky.) Despite all the biases, on several issues town hall participants came up with opinions not very different from those that have been expressed by majorities of Americans in dozens of well-designed national surveys. Participants opposed cuts in Social Security benefits, insisting that benefits must be preserved when balancing the budget. They wanted to strengthen the economy, favoring the current stimulus bill (stalled in the Senate) by a margin of 51% to 38%. In order to reduce budget deficits, most favored cutting defense spending and enacting progressive tax measures: raising the payroll tax “cap” so that incomes over $106,800 are subject to the tax (85% in favor); raising high-end corporate and personal income taxes; and imposing new taxes on carbon and on securities transactions. Only on the Social Security retirement age did the results conspicuously stray from actual public opinion…
Support for Social Security is found in virtually all segments of the American population. The opinion that “too little” is being spent on Social Security is shared by majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; by majorities of men as well as women; by whites as well as African Americans or Latinos; by people with a lot of formal education as well as people with little. Most important, support is very strong among young (age 18-29) Americans, fully 63% of whom told the most recent GSS that we are spending “too little” on Social Security. The supposed generation gap on Social Security is mostly a myth. There is no intergenerational war between “greedy geezers” and the young.
Yves here. It is refreshing that this effort failed, but it is a given that the Peterson crowd will go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to credibly produce the answer it wants.