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07.14 Facts, Fancy & Moving Forward

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Facts are stubborn things, John Adams once declared. But so, apparently, are people.

There's been a lot of attention this week to research suggesting, as the Boston Globe put it, that "facts don't necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite." Studies show people with strong partisan views not only reject conflicting information but are likely to hold onto their misconceptions even more strongly. (Here's a roundup of commentary on this point).

This research isn't new, but one reason why it may resonate is the concern among many commentators that people are more prone to getting their information from sources that fit their preconceptions – the quality Stephen Colbert famously defined as "truthiness." Even setting that aside, surveys continue to show wide gaps in how Republicans and Democrats perceive problems. That includes our own Confidence in U.S. Foreign Policy Index, which found Republicans getting significantly more anxious about global affairs, even as Democrats' belief that the U.S. was "on the right track" jumped 41 points.

So is it hopeless to even try to give people authenticated facts and balanced information to consider as they make decisions in politics? Should journalists and good government groups who try to promote better understanding of issues just throw in the towel?

First off, not everyone is a political partisan, and even those with strong political views may not hold them on every subject. Most Americans aren't up to speed on every problem facing the nation. How could they be? There's a flood of information out there, but only so much time in the day to keep up with the topics you're interested in, much less everything else.

Secondly, clearly people do change their minds as they get more information. Surveys show this time and again: on equal opportunity for women, on gay rights, on race relations, the war in Iraq, even offshore drilling, there have been huge shifts in public opinion as people have absorbed new ideas and had time to think about them. Sometimes it happens quickly; more often the process can take time, years or even decades. But there's no doubt that it happens.


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07.09 On the Public and Climate Change, It's Not the Heat or the Cold, It's the Curve

Friday, July 9th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

This week's triple-digit heat wave has raised both temperatures and hopes among climate activists that this can move public opinion about global warming – just as climate skeptics grasped onto last winter's "snowpocalypse" as a talking point. From our point of view, what policymakers and activists really need is a better reading on the public, not a better reading on the thermometer.


When it comes to complicated problems, like energy and climate, public thinking goes through a "learning curve." The learning curve runs through several stages, from initially learning about an issue to "working through" the different alternatives and finally to a resolution, according to Public Agenda's founder, Dan Yankelovich. This can be a long process, and there are a lot of potential hurdles that can block progress. Scientists and policymakers, in particular, often believe that more information is the answer, but information is only one element in public thinking.


The hardest part of this process is the middle stage of "working through," where the public weighs a particular problem against other priorities, and various options to solving it against each other. This takes time, and there are a lot of potential roadblocks, like wishful thinking, mistrust, a lack of urgency, and a lack of clear alternatives.


On energy, the public is certainly wrestling with a lack of knowledge, but the question of whether climate change is real or not is only a piece of that puzzle. Four in 10 Americans can't name a fossil fuel, and even more can't name a renewable energy source. People overestimate the amount of oil we have domestically and the amount of energy we get from renewables.


So even if Americans believe we need to overhaul our energy policy – and surveys show they do – they're hampered in dealing with the options to making that change happen. The decisions needed to change our energy mix require serious tradeoffs based on economics, technology and politics. Without key facts and clear choices, the public can't judge what's realistic and what's not, and that's bound to hamper constructive, practical decision making.


There are good reasons to be skeptical of whether heat waves actually change the public's sense of urgency on global warming. But even if a hot spell made the problem more urgent for the public, without better ways of working through the choices, people could still be lukewarm when it comes to buying into practical solutions.

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07.07 The Long And The Short Of The Budget

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

The opinion writers continue to debate whether the country needs more economic stimulus or more budget-cutting – this "opinionator" faceoff in the New York Times is the latest contribution. But the more the commentators talk, the more confusing this may become for the rest of us.

We've got a recession to fight in the short term and a national debt that will reach unsustainable levels in the longer term.

Both of these problems absolutely have to be dealt with. There's a wide range of views on how to do that (the Washington Post's Ezra Klein tried to map this debate this morning). There are those who argue that there's room to do both short-term stimulus and long-term debt reduction, including Paul Krugman and David Walker. And even the Congressional Budget Office says there's "no intrinsic contradiction" between the two goals.

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07.02 What Kind Of Country Do We Want To Be?

Friday, July 2nd, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Values and choices.

That's what so many of the problems facing the nation come down to, and on this Fourth of July weekend, it's worth thinking about what that means – and why our public debate so often veers away from that.

Consider some of the challenges we face:

Depressing thoughts for a holiday weekend? Not at all. There are practical options available to solve all these problems. But citizens need to think about what's important to them, and consider the tradeoffs inherent in making solutions stick. Policymakers need to consider how the public thinks about these social issues, and what they need to move up the "learning curve" and make informed choices.

And, after all, the public making its own decisions is what the Fourth of July is all about.

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06.28 Join Us Wednesday, June 30, In Washington

Monday, June 28th, 2010 | Francie Grace

There's never been a better chance to step up as an active citizen and join the deliberation on the serious issues we face as a nation. Friends of Public Agenda are invited to join us on Wednesday, June 30, in Washington for a panel discussion on the national debt, including the findings of our new report, "The Buck Stops Where? D.C. Influencers Talk About The National Debt."

The event, sponsored by Public Agenda and another partner in Our Fiscal Future, the National Academy of Public Administration, will be from 8:30 – 10:00 a.m., with registration and coffee beginning at 8:00 a.m., at the National Academy of Public Administration, 900 7th Street NW, in the Meeting Level Auditorium.

The speakers at the panel discussion are Scott Bittle, Elaine Kamarck and John Castellani.

Bittle, director of Public Issues Analysis and executive vice president of Public Agenda, will talk about the findings and policymaking implications of "The Buck Stops Where?," done for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the Choosing Our Fiscal Future initiative. Bittle has written extensively on this subject and is co-author, with Jean Johnson, of "Where Does The Money Go? Your Guided Tour To The Federal Budget Crisis" (2008), which is to be reissued in January with updates based on the current fiscal situation.

Karmarck is on the faculty of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She was a White House advisor to President Clinton from 1993-1997, and is the author of "The End of Government As We Know It: Policy Implementation in the 21st Century" and "Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System."

Castellani is the president and CEO of the Business Roundtable. He frequently provides news commentary on business and public policy issues, and has appeared on programs including NBC’s "Meet the Press," PBS' "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Fox News Channel's "Special Report," and CNBC's "Street Signs."

Seating for "The Buck Stops Where?" panel discussion is limited; please RSVP in advance to OurFiscalFuture@napawash.org. For questions, please call 202-204-3653. And to learn more about this problem, check out our research and Our Fiscal Future, on the Web, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

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06.28 Rational Talk About The Budget

Monday, June 28th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

If anything comes through loud and clear about Saturday's America Speaks National Town Meeting on the federal budget, it's this: the American people can still grapple with complicated, even daunting, issues, and come to solid conclusions.

After last year's rough-and-tumble town hall meetings on health care, some people may have doubted whether civil discussion of complicated issues is even possible anymore. Yet some 3,500 people from all walks of life took time out on a weekend to spend more than six hours talking about the federal budget. The topic's not easy, and neither are the solutions.

Forums in 19 cities around the country came together, discussed the problem in a civil manner, and wrestled with no less than 42 options for addressing our long-term budget problems. They came up with some fascinating conclusions, such as:

  • Raise the limit on taxable (Social Security) earnings so it covers 90% of total earnings.
  • Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%
  • Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million
  • Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69
  • Reduce defense spending by 10% – 15%
  • Create carbon and securities-transaction taxes

You can find out more about the national town meetings here. The event was organized by America Speaks, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (The MacArthur Foundation is also funding Our Fiscal Future).

So civil discussion is possible – but it does have to be structured. The "open-mike night" atmosphere of many public forums can easily turn into just a way to express anger, without any discussion of solutions. In the public engagement approach used by Public Agenda, as well as the related strategies used by America Speaks and other groups, deliberative forums are designed to let people weigh the costs and tradeoffs behind each option, and make informed choices between them.

The National Town Meeting shows we can still have a productive discussion, even on the toughest issues – and that's what we're going to need, if we're going to solve our budget problems in a way that lets us both pay our bills and preserve our values.

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06.25 Getting From Magical To Practical

Friday, June 25th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Americans are ready to change the nation's energy policy – but are they ready to do what it takes to get there?

Nearly all Americans think energy policy is broken, with nine in 10 who say it needs either "fundamental changes" or should be "completely rebuilt," according to a new CBS/New York Times survey. Clearly, there's a consensus that change is needed.

But what kind of change? In the same survey, 59 percent said it was at least "somewhat likely" that the United States will develop an alternative to oil within the next 25 years. But half (51 percent) said they would oppose raising gas taxes to pay for developing renewable energy, rising to 65 percent when a tax of $1 per gallon was mentioned.

The poll results are not that different from what Public Agenda found in our Energy Learning Curve™ public opinion research, which revealed a great deal of consensus on solutions, and at the same time, a strong sense that anything that increases the cost of driving is off the table for the public.

The challenge for leaders will be how to move the public from supporting change to backing practical steps to make it happen. Increasing the cost of driving isn't the only option for changing how we get energy, but all the options require choices on both technology and economics. The CBS/Times survey shows one bargain the public isn't willing to make. Now we have to find the bargains that will fly.

To learn more about the choices we face, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guided Tour To The Energy Crisis and join the discussion on Facebook and on @TheEnergyBook, our energy feed on Twitter.

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06.17 Real Change On Energy

Thursday, June 17th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

In his first Oval Office speech, President Obama tried to channel frustration over the Gulf oil spill into momentum for changing U.S. energy policy, calling for new action to promote clean energy and reduce dependence on foreign oil. The president compared changing the nation's energy use to the buildup for World War II, or the drive to put a man on the moon.

In a recent blog posting, I observed that in those cases the public may however have had a much firmer grasp of both the challenge and the choices facing the nation. The public has a "Learning Curve™" to climb on complicated issues, as people work through what they think and what they're willing to do. Americans can do this on energy as they have before on many other thorny issues, but before we do, there are a couple of challenges to get past.


Rescuing oiled pelicans in Barataria Bay, La. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class John Miller)

One is that significant numbers of Americans lack key information about how we use energy. Four in 10, we've found on our surveys, can't name a fossil fuel, and roughly half can't name a renewable energy source. Although most people are aware that it'll take a while for alternative energy to really take hold, most also overestimate how much renewable energy we use now.

In fact, the United States gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels – and the government's own projections say we'll still get getting 80 percent of our energy from fossil fuels in 2030, unless we take steps to change.

The second challenge is helping the public grasp the choices we face. The Deepwater spill (USCG photo, above: rescuing oiled pelicans in Barataria Bay, La.) has made the risks and tradeoffs involved in offshore drilling abundantly clear. But the tradeoffs involved in moving away from oil are more complicated.

Do we want to continue putting something liquid in our tanks, like biofuels or natural gas? Do we want to move to electric cars? Are we willing to pay more to do either? Any of these alternatives require big changes – after all, there are 250 million motor vehicles in the U.S., and almost all of them run on oil.

These are choices that divide and even flummox the experts. But making choices doesn't have to be left to the experts – and on this issue, more than most, it's the public that has to choose. To learn more about the choices we face, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guide To The Energy Crisis and join the discussion on Facebook and on @TheEnergyBook, our energy feed on Twitter.

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06.17 The Higher Ed Balancing Act

Thursday, June 17th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

A new report on work and education underscores a key irony in higher education: too many students have trouble getting the degree they'll need for jobs in the future because they're too busy working at the job they have now.

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce reported this week that the number of jobs requiring an associates' degree or more will grow faster than the pool of qualified people, to the tune of a three-million-worker shortfall by 2018. People who drop out, or even those with just a high school education, will increasingly find themselves left behind in the marketplace, the center said.

Yet Public Agenda's research has found one reason for the nation's dismal college completion rate is the difficult juggling act so many students have to perform between work, school and family responsibilities. In our survey of young adults, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, we found more than half of those who left higher ed before completing a degree say that the "need to work and make money" while attending classes is the major reason they left.

Balancing work and school was an even bigger barrier than finding money for tuition. In fact, those who dropped out are almost twice as likely to cite problems juggling work and school as their main problem as they are to blame tuition bills (54 percent to 31 percent).

And those who do drop out may not fully realize the impact that failing to get a degree will have on their future. As a group they are less likely to "strongly agree" that their parents always instilled in them the importance of college, that people who have a college degree make more money and that they would still go to college if they knew they could get a good job without a degree.

So what do these young people say would help? Making college more convenient to those on busy schedules, such as offering evening and weekend classes, and helping part-time students get financial aid. Find out more about the report, prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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06.10 Beyond Deepwater: Energy & The Environment

Thursday, June 10th, 2010 | Scott Bittle

Surveys are showing that the longer the Deepwater spill goes on, the less the public likes offshore drilling – but in that case, where does the energy debate go from here?

That's a key backdrop to the maneuvering around an energy bill, and a Senate vote today on whether the EPA should be allowed to regulate greenhouse gases like other pollutants. It's safe to say the public isn't focused on those questions: the spotlight is instead on the frustrating news out of the Gulf of Mexico.

It's perhaps no surprise that support for offshore drilling has fallen from 62 percent in 2008, after gas prices hit $4 per gallon, to only 40 percent now, according to a CBS News poll. An ABC/Washington Post survey found support for more drilling dropping from 64 percent last August to 52 percent now.

More surprising, however, is the change in how people see the broader tradeoff between energy and the environment. Since 2007, as energy prices rose, a Gallup poll found more people favoring energy production over environmental protection. It's also pretty typical for people to favor economic concerns in general over the environment during a recession. As recently as March, Gallup found 50 percent who said finding more energy should be a bigger priority, compared to 43 percent who said protecting the environment should be the priority. By May, that had changed to 55 percent who said the environment should be the priority, and 39 percent who favored production.

So what now? The fundamental energy challenge is that the United States, and the world, will need both more energy and cleaner energy. Surveys, including our own research, suggest there are strong areas of public consensus for a new energy policy. But will we grasp onto them? To join the discussion, check out Who Turned Out The Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis and our energy issues Facebook site and Twitter feed.

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