Monday, August 9, 2010

Attitudes towards Regulation

Now that it appears that the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico has been sealed with "an effective cement plug" (in the words of an official BP statement), the Financial Times is reporting the results of their commission to Harris Interactive to conduct a poll of opinions pertaining to questions of regulation. The results were reported last night by James Boxell and Sylvia Pfeifer, who summarized the scope of the survey as follows:

The poll was conducted online by Harris Interactive among 6,180 adults aged 16-64 in France, Germany, Spain, the UK and the US and adults between 18-64 in Italy, between July 20 and 29.

The "bottom line" results are summarized in the following graphic:

Note that, while each country comes in with at least 70% in favor of further regulation, the strongest feelings about regulation come from France, Italy, and Spain, all countries "whose underlying philosophy of governance is based on the concept of social democracy [and] believe that citizens have a right to expect their government to protect them from harm, be it from warfare, crime, or circumstances of day-to-day life" and that recognize that such a "right is balanced by a duty to support government providing that protection by supplying government with the necessary resources, usually through taxation." The phrases in quotation marks were extracted from a piece written about a week ago, which also happened to be about regulation but was inspired by a Consumer Reports article warning about the dangers of unregulated dietary supplements. Lagging behind these "top three" is Germany, whose long commitment to social democracy has recently come under the challenge of a preference for American conservatism in recent elections. Then, at the bottom of this sample space, we have our own country and the United Kingdom, both countries in which social democracy has been strongly embattled for several decades, basically going back to Ronald Reagan over here and Margaret Thatcher over there.

So does this poll really indicate a change in attitude towards the concept of social democracy, or is it just another example of how selective we can be when it comes to venting our anger? Last week I decided to consider the coincidence of the Consumer Reports article on dietary supplements with the Federal court decision on Proposition 8, from which I drew the following (intentionally provocative) conclusion:

Freedom to choose what you buy is apparently sacrosanct; freedom to choose whom you marry is an instrument of the devil.

In this case "freedom to choose what you buy" would come down to gas-guzzling motor vehicles and the drill-baby-drill philosophy necessary to feed those hungry beasts. Is the American public really becoming more socially conscious and less consumerist as a result of the BP disaster?

The report by Boxell and Pfiefer seems to consider this path in the light of further questions posed in the course of the Harris poll:

However, the survey also underlines how far the public anger in the US about the disaster has spread to the wider industry.

Almost a third of Americans said they thought less of all energy companies following the accident, four in 10 said they were now more worried about climate change and two-thirds said the disaster had increased their fears about their country’s dependence on oil.

Almost three-quarters of Americans were more worried about wildlife and the environment since the spill, with 62 per cent voicing fears about further oil exploration.

Other western countries were closer to the US than the British in how their attitudes had changed towards BP. About half of French and Spanish people said they now thought less of the company, rising to 60 per cent in Italy.

While these number are certainly encouraging on the surface, I am not sure they are particularly meaningful. I would suggest that the only inference one can draw is the one that the Tea Party folks seem to have known for some time: When the American people get mad about one thing, they get mad about everything. The idea that the Macondo disaster should have inspired increased consciousness about environmental damage, wildlife preservation, or climate change (which, unless I am mistaken, most conservatives still dismiss as a godless fiction invented by scientists) strains belief, however disciplined the Harris methodology may have been. My own conclusion is that the American public is as consumerist as it has ever been and remains inoculated with the precept that social democracy is "dangerous socialism." Had this poll been designed with a tighter focus, its overall results would have been a bit more credible!

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