Suppose for a moment that a beautiful, fiery red-headed woman – or, for the ladies out there, a man who looked like a young Alain Delon – approached you and asked for your thoughts on complicated subjects. The topic could be quantum physics, economic policy, or the Italian War of 1494. The average person would do their best to seem like an authoritative source on the topic, providing vague insights that could apply to anything. Now, imagine that this good-looking but unscrupulous individual had a motive for gathering these opinions and employed tactics to attain the desired result.
Most Americans Expect A Recession
What is a recession? A technical recession is when there are two consecutive quarters of gross domestic product (GDP) contraction. A full-blown recession is when the manufacturing sector shrinks for six straight months, the gross national product (GNP) falls 1.5%, nonfarm payrolls drop 1.5%, and employment collapses in 75% of industries for six or more months.
Will this happen in the United States? A new survey found that most Americans think a recession is on the horizon. According to the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 60% of respondents anticipate a downturn in the next year.
While the conclusions of these participants can be debated, the method the pollsters used is what should come into question. Compared to the rest of the queries, the recession one had the hallmark of leading – asking a question to encourage the desired answer.
Here is how the telephone interviewers determined that six in ten Americans expect a slump:
“As you may know, periods of economic growth are followed by periods of recession. Do you think a recession over the next year is very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely or very unlikely?”
This is an interesting qualifier. Consider a couple of the other queries that the more than 1,000 participants answered:
- “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Trump is handling trade negotiations with China?”
- “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Trump is handling the economy?”
These were two straight forward questions that did not lead the respondents in any way.
Why not just ask: “Do you think a recession over the next year is very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?” The researchers chose an odd way to frame the matter because a recession does follow expansion. If the opinion generators did want to be specific and technically correct, then it could present it this way: “As you may know, the economic cycle is the rise and fall of the economy between growth and recession. Do you think a recession over the next year is very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely or very unlikely?”
John Q. Public
Americans have been generally skeptical and negative about the economy. This is confirmed by Gallup’s historical trends dating back to 1992. The “excellent” rating given to the economy has only topped 20% four times (March 1998, September 1999, July and August 2000). “Only fair” seems to be a more popular choice than “good” or “poor.”
Even if the public genuinely thought a recession was going to happen in the next 12 months, they are only looking at the headlines, not the data. Anyone would be frightened of a financial crisis tomorrow if sweat fell from anchor’s furrowed brow as he or she talked about the yield curve inversion in an ominous tone.
It is also important to point out that the average person is terrified to utter these three simple words in succession: “I don’t know.” When asked by someone official about their opinion on something as complex as the economy, people do not want to come across as ignorant. So, they will pretend they know the answer even when they do not – a behavior that is common for everybody, especially politicians.
Consider this: A pollster calls your house and asks, “What do you want to see more of in newspapers?” Most folks will say they want more foreign news, business stories, and historical profiles. But what they really prefer is more sports, more coverage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and more funnies – lots and lots of funnies!
Legendary economist Murray Rothbard famously wrote in What Has Government Done to Our Money?:
“It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.”
It is unclear how many of the survey participants have an elementary understanding of economics. But it is clear that the mainstream media will begin their newscasts with the results and plaster news articles with the “Most Americans think a recession will happen by 2020 – and Why They’re Right” finding.
Are you worried about the rising number of young people without jobs? Are you concerned about the rise in youth crime? Do you think there is a paucity of discipline in schools? Do you believe young people would accept authority and leadership? If you answered yes to any of these, then you would support conscription.
Are you concerned about the danger of war? Are you worried about the growth of weapons in the country? Do you think it is risky giving young people guns and lessons on killing? Do you think it is immoral to force people to pick up guns against their will? If you answered yes, then you would oppose conscription.
This was a comedy bit in the classic British television series Yes, Prime Minister. It joked about the use of leading questions to skew an opinion survey to support or oppose national service. The hilarious exchange happened in the 1980s, but it remains relevant today – as all good comedy does. So, the next time a gorgeous young lady or a handsome gentleman asks for your opinion on any subject, beware.
Read more from Andrew Moran.