In my first two posts analyzing the June 26th AmericaSpeaks Community Conversation event I attended in Falls Church, VA, I presented the steps in the decision process used for the event and discussed the pre-conference phase and the first two steps. As we saw, these steps reflected a strong bias toward socializing participants into the idea that there is a deficit problem and that it has to treated by cutting expenditures and/or raising taxes. The bias was reflected in many little ways in the materials used for the meetings and in the way the first two steps were carried out. Here I continue my account with Step Three.
Participants are given a pre-survey to fill out while the national meetings are going on, and watch results of the same survey given at those events.
The pre-event survey was called Fiscal Futures Research. It began with 6 propositions to “cut the budget deficit” by either raising taxes or cutting expenses, with 5-point rating scales ranging from strongly support to strongly oppose. Neither increasing economic growth and reaching full employment, nor ceasing to issue debt after Government spending were included among the six propositions. The six propositions themselves contained well-known options for deficit cutting on both the left and the right side of the spectrum. So, the bias was neither left nor right there, but where it existed was in the framing which implied that deficits could only be cut by raising taxes or cutting spending.
Four questions followed, designed to test knowledge about politics and the budget. One of these was a question about the sources of spending causing increases in the deficit. Respondents were supposed to identify the source out of four choices that “does NOT contribute significantly to future deficits.” The choices were: 1) rising health care costs; 2) corporate bailouts; 3) the aging population, and 4) major tax cuts. The question has clear biases. First, for example, it doesn’t contain a 5th choice of continuing to issue debt, dollar-for-dollar, after Government spending. Probably because the designers didn’t want the question to suggest that the Government had the option to cut deficits by not issuing debt and paying interest. Second, however, the suggestion that one of these doesn’t contribute to future deficits is questionable. It assumes that the recent health care reform, which many think is a continuing corporate bailout of the insurance companies, won’t contribute to future deficits by contributing to rising health care costs. Also, it assumes that past corporate bailouts haven’t created a strong propensity for future bailouts. If they have, then that will contribute to future deficits. But the biggest problem with this set of choices is that it fails to mention continuing foreign wars, and recurring recessions or depressions. The first would contribute to future deficits, and the second would just about ensure that they occur. Failing to include the choices I’ve just mentioned in the instrument involves a casual, but serious bias. AmericaSpeaks has so far exhibited an obviously limited perspective in almost every question about political attitudes they asked the participants up to this point in the process.
The pre-survey next presented a number of questions relating to political participation, competence, trust and democratic attitudes. They are background questions which will be used by analysts to see if there’s a relationship between such orientations and attitudes about spending and the deficit. The next set of questions were about eliciting information rating economic conditions in this country, whether they’re better or worse than a year ago, how things are for your family, anxiety about being able to pay rent, mortgage, or housing costs, and having enough savings for retirement, and whether one is part of a group working to achieve fiscal or monetary reform. The pre-survey ended with a set of questions on demographics, including employment status. There were no obvious biases in the above questions, but values always enters social research, and without knowing the theoretical formulation intended to guide the analyses, using data from these questions, it can’t be concluded that bias hasn’t entered into the selection of these questions also.
Discussion of everyone’s vision for America in the Future and rating of agreement/disagreement on 7-point rating scales with 3 primary “value” statements, and watching results from the meetings in various cities.
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.”
Once names were shared each person gave their greatest hopes. 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.
Once everyone gave their answers to the question, we were directed to look at a list of ground rules for meeting discussions, and asked whether anyone objected to them. These were non-controversial, and are simply civility rules. No one objected to them, and the group proceeded on to a reading of the agenda and then to demographic polling. These questions were a shorter version of the list of demographic questions included in the pre-survey. Questions about whether one was a liberal, moderate or conservative, and also whether one was satisfied about the tone of political discussion in the country were also asked. The group next listened to the web-streamed national results responding to these questions, and then moved on to provide some attitudes toward the economic recovery in a 15 minute discussion. That discussion focused on two questions:
”How have you, your family and neighbors been most affected by the recession?
What is your highest concern today about the state of our economy?”
Answers were restricted to a sentence or two from each of us. If one of us had more to say than that, the moderator intervened to invoke the civility ground rules about letting others get their fair share of time. Then a quick poll was taken about whether 1) economic conditions were getting better, or worse, or staying the same; 2) you were supportive or unsupportive of Congress spending money on unemployment benefits and preserving jobs at the state level if that meant increasing the deficit; and 3) you think that the Government should be doing more, less, or the same to strengthen the economy. This part of the program had very little discussion (15 minutes) attached to it. It was as if the organizers wanted to get people to think about projecting the future in the context of their feelings about the present, but were not interested in people exchanging views about why they felt one way or another about the recovery and its importance relative to deficit spending. This is consistent with the AmericaSpeaks biases we’ve seen so far. Their interest was in getting people to talk about the problem as they defined it for the participants. They didn’t want to provide participants with any freedom to develop their own views about whether there was a problem or not, which an extended group discussion of the recovery efforts might have produced.
So, at this point the group moved on very quickly to watch the video on Federal Budget 101 prior to a discussion of “values.” The video summarized the position and argument taken in the booklet I’ve analyzed in Part Two, so there’s no reason to say anymore about it here. Immediately afterward, the facilitator moved on to get us working on “values.” The over-arching values question was:
”What are the core values that should guide decisions about our country’s fiscal future?”
The facilitator did not allow the participants to provide their own “core values” but directed the group toward providing ratings on three 7-point scales of each of three dichotomies. The ends of the dichotomies "anchored" each rating scale. The dichotomies were: 1) Taking care of current generations/taking care of future generations; 2) Share the burden of reducing the deficit equally/Place a greater burden for reducing the deficit on those more capable; and 3) The nation’s responsibility to take care of the most vulnerable citizens/individual responsibility to take care of self. There was no opportunity for participants to add other values. We were oriented to think in terms of these value dichotomies and these alone. Discussion was restricted to sharing one’s views in one or two sentences, because of the need to move on. Most participants provided ratings that were somewhere in the middle of the scales, midway between the anchors of each dichotomy. The group leaned a bit more heavily toward taking care of future generations, but it wasn’t clear that the participants accepted that dichotomy, because some thought that making sure that this generation creates real national wealth (not financial assets) is the best way to serve future generations. They also leaned slightly in the direction placing a greater burden on those more capable of handling it; and they also leaned slightly more towards taking care of self.
A bias in the values instrument is readily apparent. How did AmericaSpeaks select only these three values? Why didn’t they ask about the dichotomy “share the burden equally/place a greater burden on those who did most to cause the recession and who have benefited most from Government bailouts”, for example. Why didn’t they ask about the dichotomy “the Government doing all that can be done to end the recession and under- and unemployment/doing all it can to balance the budget regardless of whether or not it is likely to deepen the recession”? Or why didn’t they ask about "joining together to ensure equality of opportunity/allowing to America to continue to evolve toward a more economically unequal society"? In short, why orient people by presenting conservative rather than progressive value dichotomies to the participants and preventing them from adding any? Clearly, the reason is to maintain the bias in the proceedings toward deficit reduction and self-sacrifice.
Once the values work was done we listened to the results web-streamed from the national meeting, and then heard our own facilitator summarize the results in our own meeting. The next step was to move on to the options workbook, presenting "tough choices". At this point, our facilitator polled the group to see if everyone wanted to watch presenters at the national meeting present the choices in the options workbook before we did our work on them. About 20% of the group favored watching the presentation, while the rest thought that since we were already at about 2 PM and had to leave at 3 PM, we didn’t have the time to listen to any more “propaganda,” as one participant termed it, from AmericaSpeaks. Our facilitator then had the group split into two with one table watching the presentation, and a second much larger group going right to making their choices of what things to cut using the options workbook. At this point, we need to discuss the options workbook with an eye toward its framing and the biases there. So this seems like a good place to stop. In Part Four, I’ll discuss the tough choices exercise using the options workbook, and wind up this series.