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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Labor Unions in the Spotlight

Labor unions are much in the news again. The focus of the moment is on public labor unions. The highest visibility focal point is Wisconsin, where the governor has made proposals to change the basic nature of the relationship between public unions and the state government -- part of his effort to reduce Wisconsin's large state’s deficit. Sensing that this type of change would dramatically alter the way public unions function -- particularly if carried over to other states -- union members, union leaders, and union sympathizers have poured into the Badger state, demonstrations have ensued, state legislators have fled the state to avoid a vote on the governor’s proposals, and, in general, the stakes in the battle have been raised all around.

It’s not just Wisconsin. Other state governors are contemplating the same type of actions. Politico reports on a Matt Bai profile of rising-star Republican Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie,  forthcoming  in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, in which Bail notes that public unions have become one of Christie's signature issues:  “....Chris Christie has his sprawling and powerful public-sector unions -- teachers, cops, and firefighters who Christie says are driving up local taxes beyond what the citizenry can afford, while also demanding the kind of lifetime security that most private-sector workers have already lost.”

We can provide some context from a public opinion perspective. Keep in mind first that only a small minority of Americans are members of labor unions -- about 12% to 13% based on Gallup estimates, with a slightly higher percentage if those with a union family member are included. But our interviewing has shown that about 35% of all government employees across the country are members of unions, including about 37% of all state government employees.

Looked at differently, we can estimate that about 48% of labor union members work for the government at the federal, state, or local level. In other words, the American union situation has evolved to the point where about half of all union members work government employees.

Our recent polling showed an even split when Americans are asked if they think public unions mostly helped or mostly hurt their states.

More generally, Gallup has been tracking attitudes about “labor unions” (no specification of private or public) since the Depression years. (Interestingly, this is one of Gallup’s longest-running trend questions.) A review of this trend, plus much more about American attitudes towards unions can be found here.

As of our last update in August, Americans said they were more likely to approve than disapprove of labor unions, but not by much. There has been a decided decrease in approval of labor unions in recent years. As recently as the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans approved of unions. Now, that approval figure is 52%. Last year’s 48% was the all-time low for this labor union approval measure.

The union fight in Wisconsin is very partisan.  Governor Walker is a Republican.  President Obama and other Democratic leaders have come out in opposition to the governor's plans to alter the way public unions operate in his state. Republicans have rallied in support of the governor’s proposals.  All of this is not surprising. Attitudes toward unions are very partisan in nature. Democrats are most likely to approve, Republicans are most likely to disapprove. These differences are large.  Last year, 71% of Democrats nationally approved of labor unions, compared to 49% of independents, and just 34% of Republicans.

Gallup tracking data also show that the partisan composition of the union member population skews considerably more Democratic than non-union members or than the population in general.

Americans perceive that labor unions will become weaker in the years ahead. Also, given three choices about the influence of labor unions in the United States today, 40% say that unions should have less influence, 29% more influence, and 27% about the same amount of influence they have today. The “less influence” percentage is near an all-time high level. Again, this is highly related to partisanship.

In 2009, the last time we asked the question, a slight majority of 51% of Americans said that labor unions mostly hurt rather than help the U.S. economy.

Since union members are a clear minority of the voting population, their appeal to public opinion lies in activating a broad sympathy for what they do, rather than specific personal benefits to the average citizen. Americans in general appear to be relatively divided regarding unions -- more so now than they have been previously in Gallup’s polling history when the public was more positive. Supporters of unions are and will continue to make the case that unions benefit society by benefiting workers. Opponents of unions will continue to make the case that unions have a negative impact on society, business and local and state governments.  The increasing emphasis on public unions in budget-strapped states appears to be a catalyst for a renewed focus on the impact of unions in the U.S.  This means the potential a change in public opinion about unions is most likely greater now than it has been in recent years.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Light Bulb Law a Good or Bad Thing for America?

Despite signs of protest brewing about the requirements of a 2007 energy bill that would, in essence, phase out the traditional incandescent light bulb, it doesn’t appear that most Americans object to the law.

Any new law can be counted on to generate some negative reaction. This particular law doesn’t outlaw incandescent bulbs, but requires light bulbs to meet new energy efficiency standards, which has the de facto impact of making incandescent bulbs obsolete.

A quick bit of research shows that there have been any number of different objections to the law. Some of these objections focus on very practical considerations: the quality of light from the required new energy-efficient bulbs, the problems with disposing of the new bulbs, evidence that the new bulbs don’t save as much energy as once thought, the bulbs' cost, brightness of the new bulbs, and so forth.

Other objections are broader in nature, including in particular the allegation that the law is another example of too much federal government intrusiveness into Americans’ lives, and the allegation that the new law will cost American jobs (since the new energy efficient bulbs are more likely to be made overseas than the old incandescent bulbs).

A number of representatives in Congress last fall introduced the “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act,” which primarily focused on these broader objections. The “Better Use” law would rescind the part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that deals with light bulbs.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas is one of the authors of the bill, and says: “From the health insurance you’re allowed to have, to the car you can drive, to the light bulbs you can buy, Washington is making too many decisions that are better left to people who work for their own paychecks and earn their own living.”

Here’s another quote from Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, also a sponsor of the bill: “If the American people needed another example of why it is time to roll back the hyper-regulation of the past four years, this is it. Washington banned a perfectly good product and fired hard working Americans based on little more than their own whim and the silly notion that they know better than the American consumer. Now, hundreds more Americans are looking for work while assembly lines in China are churning out fluorescent bulbs for the US market. Tell me how that makes any sense at all.”

We don’t know for sure how aware the average American is of all of these categories of objections to the 2007 law. But a new USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Feb. 15-16 shows that most Americans have tried the new energy efficient fluorescent light bulbs and that most are satisfied with them. And, most importantly, by about a 2-to-1 ratio, Americans think the law which will phase out the standard, incandescent bulbs is a good thing rather than a bad thing.

Thus, if repealing the portions of the 2007 energy efficiency law dealing with light bulbs were put to a national vote, it looks like it would lose. Democrats and independents are strongest in their support for the law. Republicans and conservatives split evenly, meaning that even among these groups it is not a sure thing that a referendum to repeal the law would win.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Attack the Deficit or Create Jobs or Both?

Speaker of the House John Boehner says: “The American people are ready to get serious about tackling our fiscal challenges...”

It’s not clear where the evidence for that statement comes from. I would phrase it differently.  I would say the American people are ready to get serious about the economy and jobs.

Americans list the top problems facing the country as follows:

Jobs (unemployment) is the top problem facing the nation, as can be seen. Perhaps Boehner's phrase “fiscal challenges” subsumes jobs.

At any rate, the "deficit" is fifth on the list of Americans' volunteered major problems. A recent Pew Research Center poll found similar results. They gave Americans a list of four economic issues: the job situation, rising prices, the federal budget deficit, and problems in the financial and housing markets. Forty-four percent of Americans said that the job situation worried them the most, followed by 23% who said that rising prices worried them most. The federal budget deficit worried 19% of respondents the most.

Despite his use of the broad phrase "fiscal challenges", Speaker Boehner is apparently not oblivious of the fact that Americans prioritize jobs as their government's central objective, rather than reducing the deficit per se.  As The New York Times' Carl Hulse summarized it, "...Mr. Boehner’s central economic argument [is] that paring federal outlays will translate into new private sector jobs." Speaker Boehner appears to have been briefed to use the words “jobs” or “job creation” whenever he talks about almost anything (see here for a recent example).  Back in January, Boehner and his colleagues even made sure to include the word "jobs" in their official rendering of the objectives of the House bill to repeal healthcare (passed on January 19th):  “To repeal the job-killing health care law and health care related provisions in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010.”

Of course President Obama talks about jobs as well. In his Feb. 12 radio address, Obama discussed “...job-creating investments in roads, high-speed trains, and broadband.”  (However, a fascinating and complex research project by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland recently found that Americans of all political persuasions were willing to cut highway funding. Even while they advocated increasing government spending on job training. Which raises the question of the degree to which Americans are aware that highway funding increases jobs.)

More generally, Americans also do not appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of reducing the deficit as opposed to the broad idea of stimulating the economy. The aforementioned Pew poll found the public split when confronted with the choice of spending “to help the economy recover” versus reducing the deficit. However, note that in this poll the respondents were given a rationale for the first choice and not the second. Boehner and others would probably argue that the second alternative should have been phrased “...reducing the deficit to help the economy recover.”

The big issue in all of this is the relative efficacy of ways to increase jobs, clearly the average American's top priority out there across the country. Jobs can be created by direct government spending, which certainly has occurred over the last decade or so as a result of heightened government spending. If government spending is reduced, federal employment will shrink. Speaker Boehner created some controversy by saying "So be it" when asked about the prospect of reduced federal employment. As has become apparent, he and other Republican leaders think that jobs are best created by reducing government spending -- even while hurting the federal employment picture. And, echoing long term GOP positions, he does not believe that raising taxes will help the jobs situation.

It's worth noting that Americans are actually more optimistic on several fronts these days. First, Gallup's measure of economic confidence is up. Second, Gallup's measure of Americans' life evaluation is up.

But, getting back to the main point, the big problem remains jobs. Gallup's unemployment measures do not look good. And our estimates of job creation have actually been sinking slightly as of late.

This means, I think, that Americans are seeing some light at the end of the economic tunnel, perhaps fueled by the rise in the stock market. But there are continuing problems with jobs. We just can't seem to pick up in our daily samples evidence that more people are being getting jobs or that companies are increasing hiring.

The good news from the public's perspective is that all sides of the political spectrum in Washington have picked up on Americans' high level of concern about jobs. The jury is obviously still out on exactly what Washington will do about this situation, and how well whatever is done will work.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Is Egypt Americans' Top Concern?

There is currently a great deal of interest in public opinion relating to the crisis in Egypt. My colleague Dalia Mogahed testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week about her research on reactions in Egypt and the Muslim world to the events in Egypt. My colleagues and I have been reporting on a series of findings related to domestic public opinion about Egypt. My colleagues Jon Clifton and Lymari Morales reported on trends in wellbeing in Egypt and other countries in the region.

Even at this early point in the Egyptian crisis, we have learned a lot about public opinion, both in Egypt and here in the United States. I'm particularly interested in measures of Americans' views of the relative importance of what is happening in Egypt.

The news media naturally tends to give intense focus to whatever happens to be the story of the day. This springs out of the conviction on the part of news gatekeepers that circulation, hits, and ratings depend on dominating the coverage of a hot story. (Political operatives have also learned that they need to react quickly and strongly to any news development that affects their candidate.) CNN has long practiced this philosophy of extended and expanded news coverage, under the assumption that when there is a major news story, people come to the network looking for everything there is to know about it.

One of the natural results of this process of massive coverage of the top news stories of the day or week is the creation of the perception that a particular news story is of overwhelming, dramatic importance for the U.S. and the world.

But for those who may be setting policy or making concrete decisions, a check of representative public opinion can perform the positive function of putting a news event into perspective. The American public sits out across the land in some ways like a jury or focus group. The news swirls by them on an hourly and daily basis. It's useful to see what "sticks" with the public and what doesn't.

Let's take current U.S. public opinion about the Egyptian situation as an example. Despite the intense media focus on Egypt, Americans appear to be fairly mild in their calculations of its importance. There is minimal evidence that the average American considers the Egypt situation to be a major international crisis as far as its impact on the United States is concerned.

Egypt barely registers when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the country today. Domestic economic issues and in particular jobs overwhelm every other concern. The Feb 2-5 Gallup survey finds .5% (5 people out of 1015) mentioning Egypt as the most important problem.

Less than half of Americans say what happens in Egypt is vitally important to the U.S. Egypt ranks 9th on a list of 12 countries rated on this dimension. China dwarfs all other countries as vitally important, no doubt reflecting its economic prowess in today's international marketplace. Other countries seen as at least marginally more important than Egypt to U.S. interests include North Korea, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, and Pakistan.

Americans are certainly not ignoring Egypt. Sixty-nine percent of Americans are paying attention to the news out of Egypt. That puts the story above the median 60% attention level Americans have given to the average news story Gallup has tested over the years.

Still, Americans apparently don't believe that what is happening in Egypt rises to the level of a crisis for the U.S. It may be that Americans recognize that what is happening in that country is more important for Egyptian citizens than it is for Americans. Some might argue that Americans are under-informed or not aware of the real impact of regime change in Egypt.

And, of course, there is the fact that Americans remain highly focused on domestic concerns -- including jobs in particular. Even within the international sphere, it appears that what happens in countries like China (and North Korea and Iran) is more important to the average American than what happens in Egypt.

All of this leads me to the point of caution when I'm asked to opine about the effect of the Egyptian situation on President Obama's job approval ratings, or on other measures of Americans' moods. There are other factors out there that appear to be more likely to affect these measures than what is happening in Egypt.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Very Religious Obama

We had a remarkable speech from the president at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington this week. Obama spoke very openly about his religion and his Christian faith.

Obama talked about the fact that his "entry into public service was actually through the church," that “ . . . I came to know Jesus Christ for myself and embrace Him as my lord and savior,” and that "when I wake in the morning, I wait on the Lord, and I ask Him to give me the strength to do right by our country and its people."

This makes Obama's religion pretty clear to those who doubt have doubted that he is a Christian. And it appears he is quite religious to boot -- even if he has not been a regular church attender since taking office.

Being a Christian puts Obama in the company of 79% of Americans.  That's the percentage who are Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, or some other Christian faith, based on over 30,000 interviews Gallup conducted in January 2011. In case you are interested, Americans who are not Christian are strongly likely to have no religious identity, rather than to adhere to another non-Christian faith. In fact, in January, 2011, 16% out of the 21% of Americans who are not Christian say they have no religious identity, are atheist or agnostic, or simply don’t answer the religious identity question. What about the remaining 5%? Two percent are Jewish, and 3% are some other non-Christian religion. So the U.S. is a dominantly-Christian nation, and an overwhelmingly Christian nation when you take into account only those who have a religious preference.

As a black Democrat, Obama is in one of the more interesting situations we have in America today when it comes to religion and politics. In a nutshell, blacks are very Democratic in political orientation in general, and also very religious in general. That flies in the face of the fact that very religious Americans tend to be Republicans, not Democrats.

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