I've been getting more than a little comedy mileage out of this story lately, primarily because on the morning of January 3 it was blaring from as the headline story. If you don't wish to click through, the headline reads: "Dollar General to hire 6,000" and the story boasts of the many new jobs being created by the discount retailer. For non-American readers, note that Dollar General is essentially the rock bottom of the retail industry in the U.S. The average DG shopper has more food stamps than teeth and can tell you quite a bit about how to tend to a meth lab.

Leaving aside the question of whether surging demand at the store for poor people is really a good sign, of course it's a Good Thing that they are hiring. Nobody disputes that. I'm glad that new people will be hired, even if mostly for minimum wage service jobs. What slays me is CNN's palpable desperation to convince readers that the economy is getting better. As one regular reader noted when I brought up this story on the Facebooks, "Next up on CNN: 3 New Burger Kings Opening In DC Metro Area Thanks to Obama Tax Compromise." It's good news, but the enthusiasm is more than a little…comical, I think.

I understand what CNN and the White House are attempting to do in their mad effort to convince everyone that things are getting better with the 2012 presidential election getting disturbingly close. However, there are two very important reasons to believe that they are wasting their time.

1. There is a strong partisan bias to people's perception of political reality. That is some combination of silly and terrifying – after all, facts should be facts – yet years of research in political science provide ample evidence to support it. To wit: (from Bartels, L. 2002. "Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions." Political Behavior 24(2): 117-150)

The above graph (click to embiggen) shows individuals' perceptions of whether unemployment increased or decreased during the Reagan years (1981-1988). The data plainly show that as we move across the ideological spectrum from strong Democrats to strong Republicans, respondents' perception of the unemployment question becomes more favorable. About 10% of Democrats stated that unemployment got "much better" while over 50% of Republicans stated the same. The question of whether unemployment went up or down, and by how much, is not a subjective one. There is a correct answer here. Yet a substantial portion of the responses appear to be motivated by partisanship (and presumably, by extension, attitudes toward Reagan). Elsewhere in his paper Bartels provides identical evidence from the Clinton years when respondents were asked to state if the budget deficit increased or decreased over a given time period. This is not an opinion question, yet lo and behold Democrats stated (correctly) that it decreased while Republicans claimed that it grew. In other words, even IF the economy shows improvement only the President's strongest supporters are likely to accept that as fact. Yes, there is some marginal benefit with independents and fence-sitters, but the economic news would need to be quite positive for an extended period of time for it to matter.

2. This issue is particularly ill-suited to persuasion. Aside from the role of partisanship, individuals are likely to form perceptions about the economy from their own circumstances and those of their social network. If you are unemployed (and/or you know 10 people who can't find decent work, have been foreclosed, etc.) the media or some candidate are going to have a hell of a time convincing you that the economy has improved. This is an issue on which personal experience and anecdotal evidence are particularly powerful. In my own experience, I have had a very difficult time convincing myself that the job market in my field has improved (in fact, hiring is up slightly this year). Why? Because I'm still looking for work and my social network is filled with a dozen other people unsuccessfully searching for full-time work. The result is a fairly natural reaction: we accept that the numbers might be improving but reject the idea that the economy is getting better until our own circumstances, and those of our friends/family/colleagues, start to get better.

I tip my hat to the White House and the media for making the effort, but it simply isn't possible to talk people into believing that the economy is improving. Getting that idea to take root among the voting public will require, you know, actual economic improvement…and even then half of America won't believe it. We have ample evidence, in the timeless words of The American Voter, of "the role of enduring partisan commitments in shaping attitudes toward political objects."

16 thoughts on “SCREAMING AT A WALL”

  • And then there's the question of what form this "improvement" will take. For a while the missing piece of the puzzle has been employment — big corporations are posting record profits and their main shareholders are doing just fine! — but it's been a jobless recovery. So get unemployment back down to 4% or whatever the "normal" number is and we're all good, right? But, to me, it's still a net loss if you have skilled and educated workers finding new un-rewarding careers at Dollar General.

  • Facts are un-American. Elitist. They favor those who not only can, but do, read, retain and absorb information. And not only read but read intelligent sources. Feelings, on the other hand, are equalitarian, class-neutral. Thus:

    How do you feeeel about global warming?

    How do you feeeel about the health care bill?

    How do you feeeel about the bailout of Wall Street?

    Do you feeeel the economy is improving?

    Much better. We all have feelings, are entitled to feel.

    Reflecting on this, I feel sick.

  • When most folks, inlcuding myself a lot of the times, just bounce from impulse to impulse, what can you expect from the electorate but general levels of wanton ignorance? The key to political success in this society is to accept the above stated cultural problem and then figure out how to leverage it to your advantage.

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    ….or screaming at old ladies. Reminds me of the protests to the Iraq War where my local tee vee station kept showing a clip of a big man with an ugly 5 o'clock shadow yelling in the face of an elderly anti-war protester until she bonked him out of fear.

    SEE!? Libruls are VIOLENT!

    (Seriously, she looked terrified.)

  • Ed, re: your search for work, do you have any idea what the picture for academic jobs in the humanities will look like in say, two or three years in the U.S.? The reason I ask is because I will be finishing my PhD shortly (not in Poli Sci) and I've heard that budget shortfalls at the state level have, as the song goes, only just begun. I'm Canadian so feel somewhat sheltered from the American academic scene; plus, our higher education system is not the whipping boy for the right in Canada to the same extent as it is down south, so funding cuts have been less severe.

  • Are political scientists trained to make incomprehensible counter-intuitive graphs? Because almost all of the graphs you have posted here from the poli-sci literature are nearly impossible to wrap one's mind around.

  • @Comrade PhysioProf

    This is how Nate Silver conquered the world with mostly-not-so-complicated-math. In the land of the blind…

  • Interesting stuff. A Dollar General just opened by my house, and if I were out of a job, I'd consider working there (fortunately I'm a student who is in no rush for a career).

    But yeah I don't care how low unemployment is if all the jobs out there pay $9 an hour.

  • This reminds me of W's response to the complaint that a woman had to work three jobs to make a living. He thought it was awesome that such opportunity existed in America. Perhaps he was already thinking ahead.

  • The average DG shopper has more food stamps than teeth and can tell you quite a bit about how to tend to a meth lab.

    Unemployed and elitist? A rare combination indeed.

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