Monday, March 26, 2007

George Horace, or 'Do you really think they're that stupid?'

One week after the election. Just like my namesake in Amsterdam, I need proper news about what is going on now. Not just the largely pointless "reactions" and analyses of the PR campaigns etc., but a real update on what is being discussed behind the scenes.

Who is going to be in the coalition, and on what terms? What are going to be the main objectives and aims of the new government, what are the policies? Who is in agreement, who wants to change them? What's going to happen to education, universities, art museums, taxes, development aid, railroads and digital TV? What are we going to do about NATO, what is the health care going to look like in 4 years, how are we going to reach the goals for renevable energy and cutting carbon emissions as agreed by the EU? Speaking of which, are we now taking a more active role in getting the European project back to tracks or are we going to keep watching quietly from the sidestage to make sure nobody gets cross at us? Update me!

Of course, this is a time when all this is still being prepared and discussed, and even the parties are reluctant to show their cards just yet. They are now trying to set their priorities and figure out how much room for compromise they have on policies they have promoted, and how much the others are willing to give in. Which of course means that all non-governmental organisations and lobby groups out there are now busy meeting the newly elected MP's, especially the ones responsible for coalition negotiations, trying to make sure their issues get mentioned in the new government's program. Most organisations are doing this behind the scenes, or while they are releasing their objectives to the press as well, the press decides to be "impartial" and not publish them. The exception being the trade unions.

Losing the election (by proxy of the social democrats) and getting the blame for it was clearly a painful blow for them. They have been very nervous about the possible (and very likely) centre-right coalition. They have bad memories of it, the last time that coalition was in power, Finland was struggling with a major depression and many of the drastic measures needed to balance the state's finances hit the union members (naturally, almost all of the working population being members), many of which were laid off. And more importantly, the government and unions strongly disagreed about the best ways to deal with the problems, and even more fundamentally didn't agree on the role of unions in these kinds of decisions. And that spectre still haunts the unions, and it seems no amount of reinforcement is enough to convince them that the centre-right government wouldn't bomb them down as their first act in the office.

So, their campaign continues. One issue that has been on the agenda for a number of years is that in addition to (or in stead of) the national deals on pay rises, there perhaps should be more leeway to negotiate wages locally. The unions don't like this, and it is possibly their worst nightmare and the one thing they don't want to appear in the government's agenda. So, they've commissioned a study.

Did they have a model, a pilot case, cross-nation comparative study or just economical analysis and prognosis? No, they interviewed 1000 people and asked what they thought would happen.

This Gallup poll, named after the father of the statistical methodology that powers the generalisation of a survey to a population, George Horace Gallup, is of course possibly the most wrong way to go about studying the phenomenon. Surveys can be useful, although they can go spectacularly wrong as in 1948 presidential elections in the US. In many cases gallup polls or surveys are quoted by the press as being synonymous with "what the people think or want" without any consideration of their methodology, or whether they were the right tools for the job.

For instance, the surveys stand or fall with their sampling. Some groups are notoriously difficult to sample, such as immigrants, unemployed, or in other ways disadvantaged groups. I.e. the very groups that the public decision making should most vigorously try to protect. Also, the same GIGO-principle applies to surveys as to computer programs. Garbage in, garbage out. What questions to ask and how to phrase them is the key issue, once the sample is sorted. Most importantly, surveys can poll opinions and beliefs, and can help predict trends in behaviours on election day or at the supermarket, but they are not the method to find out facts.

In short, if you want to know what effects local wage-setting would have, you'd better ask a few economists who have studied the issue and not put it in a popular vote. But, it's all part of the PR-game around the incubation of the new government, of which annoyingly little is being leaked to the public!

(Pic: Wikipedia)

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