The Power of a Summary

Hospitals generate reams of patient safety-related data.  But that alone doesn’t make them accountable.

There is power in that data– the power to arm patients and purchasers with the information they need to demand better.  But in the unorganized, unsummarized aggregate, the data are not so powerful. Not to patients anyway.  Obviously, individual patients don’t have the time, inclination or expertise to decipher, organize, summarize and promote the hospital data on their own.  Therefore,  the hospitals’ data are effectively invisible to them.

The hospital data only realizes its potential power in the marketplace when boiled down into something that can be understood by patients at-a-glance, because a glance is all that most of us are willing to give the subject.  Only when boiled down will the hospital data be accessible enough to drive purchasing decisions.

And that is what a national patient safety group called Leapfrog did this week when it summarized hospitals’ patient safety data into school-like grades.  Casting judgements about hospitals is perilous business, because hospitals are fiercely defensive institutions that understandably prefer to promote their miracles over their mistakes.  Though Minnesota hospital leaders were very courageous a few years back to begin publicly disclosing their medical errors, hospital advocates in Minnesota pooh-poohed Report Card Day:

“It’s really a repackaging of what’s publicly available,” (Minnesota Hospital Association (MHA) data expert Mark) Sonneborn said.

I really should have tried that one when I was a lad.  “Chill mom, that “D” in Social Studies is actually just a repackaging of information that has been available to you all semester.”

Yes, the data behind the grades is available from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  So, if I understood which measures were most meaningful, and I don’t, it would have been technically possible for me to construct the spreadsheet that the Leapfroggers did, and make some kind of a comparison on my own.

But the practical reality is that I never did, and never would.  Life is just too busy to summarize all the data impacting my life.  And even if I was geeky enough to do my own little patient safety data research project, the effort would only benefit me, and not the rest of the country.

MHA is correct that Leapfrog’s methodology is just “repackaging.” But the grades will drive quality improvements much faster than the status quo way of managing the data.  Because whether a hospital got an “A” or a “F” grade, the minute hospital leaders know that easily understood grades are going to be regularly appearing in the hometown news media and competitors’ marketing materials is the moment they start investing more effort, thought and resources into patient safety improvements.    With the advent of publicized grades, they now know that consumers and purchasers will use their new found knowledge to vote with their feet, and their pocketbooks.

Markets work if consumers are informed, and the beauty of the grades is that they are simple enough to do that.  Lifesaving work is most often done by the miracle workers in hospitals wielding scalpels, microscopes, medications, lasers, gauze, latex, disinfectants and needles.  To be sure, these folks are heros.  But lifesaving work can also be done, indirectly, by data jockeys wielding spreadsheets and press releases.  Leapfrog, I give you an “A.”

– Loveland

Peeling Back Minnesota’s Media Layers

Compared to other Americans, are Minnesotans more intellectual in their media choices? More conservative? Liberal? Business minded? Worldly?

Or  are they sophmoric wise asses?

It appears the latter.  A recent Forbes analysis says that stereotypically stoic, humorless Minnesotans are disproportionately likely to be readers and sharers of, drumroll please:

The Onion.

Yes, The Onion, the self-styled “America’s Finest News Source.”  For those of you who aren’t real Minnesotans who are familiar with The Onion, it is a satirical news publication that currently features such fine journalism as:

Court Orders Amazon.com To Adopt Bankrupt Bookstores’ Cats

Tiger Woods’ Reputation Takes Another Hit After He Is Caught Operating A Coal Mine With Flagrant Disregard For OSHA Regulations

General Mills Gives Honey Nut Cheerios Bee Intense Backstory Of Childhood Foster Home Abuse In Bizarre Rebranding Effort

Forgive me for getting verklempt, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been more proud of my adopted state.

– Loveland

Politics and Substance Both Call For Dayton to Sign Teacher Seniority Reform Bill

I support teacher’s unions, but they are wrong to oppose reforming “last in, first out” (LIFO) teacher termination practices. Even great organizations sometimes are off-base, and Education Minnesota is wrong on this issue. The logic for changing this system is overwhelming, presented nicely here by an education reform organization called Students First.

The politics of the issue are as compelling as the logic. A statewide poll commissioned by Students First found that almost two-thirds (64%) of Minnesotants believe a measure of teacher performance should be the most important factor in deciding who to keep, while only 15% of voters say seniority should be the most important factor, as it currently is.

Looking at those numbers, it is clear that Education Minnesota is compelling DFL legislators to jump off a political cliff. Governor Dayton should save DFL legislators from themselves, and sign this bill. It’s the right thing to do, both substantively and politically.

As with most issues, I know that the devil is in the detail. I know that you have to do all you can to build a solid performance evaluation system to make the new system fair to teachers. I know that evaluating teachers is particularly tricky. But no performance evaluation system will ever be flawless, so waiting for a flawless system to be developed makes perfect the enemy of the good. Almost all large employers have performance evaluation systems in place, and there is no reason why school administrators can’t do the same, and continue to refine the system over time.

I’m glad Governor Dayton isn’t caving to Republicans on corporate property tax cuts, paid for by short-term accounting gimmicks. I’m glad Dayton is fighting Republicans to get a better bonding bill to repair the infrastructure, and put unemployed and underemployed Minnesotans to work. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Republicans are right on this issue.

– Loveland

Top 5 Dying Facts That Endanger Obama’s Reelection

A brilliant and widely circulated Chicago Tribune obituary claims that Facts has died. If you haven’t read the whole thing, here is a flavor:

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Facts reached adulthood as the world underwent a shift toward proving things true through the principles of physics and mathematical modeling. There was respect for scientists as arbiters of the truth, and Facts itself reached the peak of its power.

But those halcyon days would not last. People unable to understand how science works began to question Facts. And at the same time there was a rise in political partisanship and a growth in the number of media outlets that would disseminate information, rarely relying on feedback from Facts.

… Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion.

Services are alleged to be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that mourners make a donation to their favorite super PAC.

I’m a starry eyed optimist, so I choose to think Facts is still on life support hoping for a miracle recovery. But if the President and his team can’t successfully breathe life back into five key Facts that are currently on life support, it’s difficult to see how he can win in November.

Fact #1: Obama opted for a private health insurance reform model developed by Mitt Romney and other conservatives, rather than an insurance plan run by government.

Fact on life support.
• Fact on Life Support: Only 25% of people who took the Kaiser health reform quiz understood that Obama’s health reforms will not “create a new government run insurance plan to be offered along with private plans.”

• Implications of Death: GOP parrot trainer Frank Luntz has commanded his cockatiels to repeat the phrase “government takeover of health care” for a very sound political reason, because market research shows that is a compelling reason for moderate swing voters to oppose health care reform. The more swing voters believe that falsehood, the less they like Obamacare and Obama.

Fact on life support.
Fact #2: Bush policies and the economic downturn under Bush were the most powerful causes of the ballooning national debt, and Romney wants to extend those Bush policies.

• Fact on Life Support: Out of twelve issues, there is only one issue where voters say Romney would do a better job than Obama – handling the deficit. Voters currently believe Bush disciple Romney is the best person to tackle the debt that Bush policies largely created.

• Implications of Death: The size of the debt is especially concerning to moderate swing voters, so getting blamed for causing that problem badly hurts the President’s prospects of wooing that key constituency.

Fact #3: Obama’s stimulus package of tax cuts and investments helped ease the pain and damage done by the Great Recession.

Fact on life support.
• Fact on Life Support: Over half of independents (56%) believe the stimulus didn’t make any difference.

• Implications of Death: The central issue of the campaign is the economy, stupid. If swing voters don’t believe Obama was effective on the issue that concerns them the most, look out.

Fact #4: In terms of private sector job creation, things have gotten significantly better during Obama’s time in office than they were under Bush and the the Bush policies Romney proposes to resurrect.

Fact on life support.
• Fact on Life Support: Three-fourths (75%) of independents believe that the economy has gotten worse or stayed the same, and 77% of independents believe the economy is still in recession.

• Implications of Death: Even if most voters blame Bush for the economic meltdown, as most still do, according to polls, it’s difficult to see how swing voters who believe that things are still headed in the wrong direction will vote to rehire the incumbent President.

Fact #5: In the Obama years, taxes for the middle class were near historic lows.

Fact on life support.
• Fact on Life Support: Eighty-five percent of independent voters incorrectly believe taxes on the middle class either increased or have not changed.

• Implications of Death: Independent swing voters vote their pocketbooks, and oppose paying more in taxes. If they perceive that they were paying high taxes in the middle of a recession, the Democrat in charge will get the lion’s share of the blame, because Democrats are usually presumed to be advocating for higher taxes.

Of course, there are many other falsehoods hurting Obama. Little things like he is a foreigner, Muslim, socialist designing death panels to kill off your loved ones.

But in a year when the economy is the top issue, and with the health reform bill about to get hot again after the Supreme Court rules, these are the five dying Facts that are hurting Obama the most with swing voters. Team Obama needs to resuscitate good old Fact, or Obama’s political career will perish with him.

– Loveland

“Rosengate” The Latest News Media Overreaction

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how badly the mainstream media and punditry class had miscalculated the public reaction to the Obamacare contraceptives policy. You’ll recall that the national news media originally declared that President Obama was getting slaughtered due to the “controversy” and “firestorm” he had caused by proposing to provide contraception to women.

Then polls showed that the issue had actually helped expand a gender gap in favor of Obama.

A few days ago, a similar cycle started again, although this one didn’t even have anything to do with Obama or an Obama policy. It all started with lefty pundit Hilary Rosen’s comment that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life, forgetting three important words “outside the home.”

Reporters and pundits immediately became aroused. Forget that Rosen isn’t Obama. Forget that Rosen doesn’t speak for Obama, or work for him. Forget that most people know what Rosen presumably meant – that millionaire stay-at-home moms don’t have much in common with non-millionaire working moms — and that is an absolutely fair and relevant point. Once again, the national news media and pundits declared that Obama had a huge political problem on his hands that was crippling him with lovers of motherhood everywhere.

U.S. News blared the headline “Damage Already Done By Rosen’s Ann Romney Comment,” relying on conservative pundit Frank Luntz, who assured us:

“What she said is an insult to millions of American women,” Luntz told me, adding that even though Rosen apologized, the damage had already been done because many stay-at-home moms were offended.

CBS News went with the headline “Hilary Rosen flap a ‘win in every regard’ for GOP, says Nicole Wallace.” It quotes the giddy conservative pundit explaining:

“Ann Romney was able to connect in an instant to every woman in the country, with every woman in the country” by defending her decision to raise five boys.”

Talking Points Memo (TPM) even broke out The Suffix of Political Death, “-gate.” I kid you not, they went with “Rosengate” in their headline.

Holy Cuban plumbers, a “-gate!?” Because a supportive pundit mangled her soundbite?

Despite all that hyperventilating about Rosen’s comments and the dire consequences they supposedly had for Obama, today we’re starting to see some polling on the issue. From the Examiner:

A new Reuters poll out Tuesday shows Obama with a comfortable 14-point lead on Mitt Romney among women likely to vote in November’s general election, 51-to-37 percent. That split is more or less the same as a similar poll taken back in March that showed Obama with a 54-38 advantage.

A CNN poll out Monday offered similar numbers. The survey gave the president a 52-to-43 percent lead over Mitt Romney among registered voters, and also gave Obama a 16-point lead over Romney among women, 55-to-39 percent, almost as good as last month’s 18 points.

Another interesting development in the survey: “Despite Republicans’ efforts to portray themselves as the party of the family, Obama even had a big edge on family values among women, with 51 percent picking him as better on that issue compared with 36 percent for Romney.”

In fact, the poll found women rating Obama stronger on all issues, including the economy, jobs, health care and foreign policy.

So, after all of that talking head drama, apparently what we actually have is Nobodygivesashitgate.

– Loveland

Online Brainstorms Overcome Many Problems of Traditional Brainstorms

The other day, I highlighted research showing that face-to-face brainstorming meetings are not as effective at generating ideas as quiet contemplation. It’s important to note one partial exception to that rule: online brainstorming.

E-brainstorming.
The research is very supportive of online brainstorming. With face-to-face brainstorming, the larger the group, the worse the performance, both in terms of quantity and quality. With online brainstorming, however, the bigger the group, the better the performance, according to the research.

Why? I’d say it is because online brainstorming fosters what introverts particularly need to excel, time for quiet contemplation and self-vetting. Online brainstorming – a prolonged email-based discussion, for instance – removes many of the problems associated with the ubiquitous face-to-face brainstorming sessions so many organizations adore.

First, online brainstorms remove many of the distractions inherent in face-to-face brainstorm sessions. In face-to-face brainstorming sessions, our minds are racing from irrelevant subject to irrelevant subject: “The facilitator is not as funny as he thinks he is…do people think I’m talking too little, or too much…why Snickers…bad hair day, dude…why does she always work the word “synergy” into every monologue…if I had pointy shoes like that guy, would people conclude that I’m creative…wouldn’t white boards be more environmentally sustainable than giant Post-it notes…is the facilitator on happy pills?”

When you’re back at your keyboard, those environmental distractions are removed, so you can focus on the task at hand. Sure, distractions still exist in your office, but nothing like the wild sideshows happening in Cirque du Brainstormsession.

Second, the problem of “evaluation apprehension” – the fear of looking moronic in front of colleaugues — is mitigated online. After all, with online brainstorms, you have ample time to self-scrutinize and research your argument before expressing it, which builds confidence in the value of the contribution. When allowed sufficient time to develop the idea, you are much more likely to share it, and it is likely to be a better developed idea. Not so with the spontaneous blurting required in face-to-face brainstorming.

Third, the problem of “production blocking” – where thoughts are lost as you’re waiting for others to express their ideas — is nearly eliminated during online brainstorms. With online brainstorms, thoughts can be written down, and fully developed, as you have them.

In short, online brainstorms allow for uninterrupted contemplation, while still taking advantages of the “wisdom of crowds” phenomena.

In the book Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki sings the praises of the decisions crowds jointly make. But Surowiecki also stresses that crowds are capable of making very bad decisions. He says that a primary factor that leads to poor crowd decision making is when members of the crowd are so conscious of the opinions of others that they start to emulate each other and conform, rather than thinking as individuals.

Face-to-face meetings are much more apt to generate this kind of blind following of vocal group leaders than large groups of people sitting at their keyboards thinking independently.

Granted, online brainstorms are far from perfect. For instance, the problem of social loafing – sitting back and letting others do the work – arguably could be aggravated with large online groups. And tragically, there is no junk food supplied at e-brainstorms. But online brainstorms do avoid many of the problems associated with face-to-face brainstorms, and research indicates that they produce better results.

– Loveland

Brainstorm or Braindrain?

All wet?
Those of you in the PR, advertising and marketing business are probably very familiar with the brainstorm model of idea generation, but I know it is also used in many other industries.

For those of you who have been left out of the brain rain, here is a crash course: During brainstorms, a group of colleagues closes themselves into a room and spontaneously blurts out ideas on the given topic. The ideas are excitedly written on giant Post-it notes adhered to the walls by a perky brain storm facilitator.

“There is no such thing as a bad idea,” the facilitator, pacing around the room frenetically, continually reminds us, usually after someone offers a particularly bad idea. “The wilder the idea, the better!”

The group is urged to generate a large quantity of ideas, and rapidly build off ideas with supplements or variations. Toys and treats are often offered, to foster creativity. A few people usually sit quietly looking at their watches, and looking idealess, while a relative few dominate the airwaves. The session ends with the chirpy facilitator congratulating the participants, pointing to all of the giant Post-it Notes on the walls as evidence of the world changing ideas that the brainstorm precipitated.

Brainstorming, which was particularly promoted by legendary BBDO ad man Alex Osborn, is the operational and cultural building block of many creatively oriented businesses. The brainstorm session is to PR and agencies as the assembly line is to a manufacturer. It’s the place where the company’s talent synergistically comes together to create MAGIC.

Or does it?

In the book “Quiet: The Power of Intoverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain examines the heavy workplace emphasis on consensus and teamwork generally, and the brainstorming work model specifically. Cain cites research done by University of Minnesota psychology professor Marvin Dunnette in 1963. Dunnette asked ad executives and 3M executives to do a set of tasks. Some worked alone, and some in groups. Cain writes:

The results were unambiguous. The men in 23 of the 24 groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists.

Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusions. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases…

‘The “evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. ‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’

…Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only person can talk or produce an idea at once while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehehsion: meaning the fear of looking studid in front of one’s peers.”

So, why is brainstorming still such a big part of business operations?

Because we’re all afraid to protest, for fear we will look like killjoys who can’t appreciate all the giddy merriment and free Snickers bars?

Because all of those Post-it notes on the wall feel more like tangible evidence of productivity than the evidence offered by peer reviewed scientific research?

Because the extraverted leaders that tend to lead organizations personally are attracted to the energy such sessions gives them?

Quick, someone get some giant Post-it Notes, colored markers, beanbag chairs and Cheetos. We’ll get to the bottom of this in no time!

– Loveland

Republican Spin Doctors Misdiagnosing Obamacare

Republican spin doctors are emboldened by public opinion polls that consistently find that a majority of Americans disapprove of Obamacare. For instance, this morning’s Star Tribune carried a New York Times News Service story that was typical of the superficial poll coverage you usually see in the news. The headline read:

“47 percent disapprove of health care law, poll finds”

That headline is perfectly accurate, and Republicans think those findings are, as the Vice President would say, a “BFD.” They conclude that Americans oppose Obamacare because it is an overly radical “government takeover of health care.”

But it would behoove GOP spin doctors to probe more deeply into recent public opinion research. Because a more thorough reading of polls shows Republicans are on shaky ground with their promises to repeal Obamacare and replace it with some kind of a scaled back alternative.

For example, a March 2012 Pew Research poll found 45% disapprove of Obamacare. Romney wins, right?

Not so fast. The same Pew poll also probed why people disapprove, and it turns out that 53% of Americans either want to do as Democratic candidates suggest, “leave it as is” (20%) or “EXPAND IT” (33%), while only 38% want to do what the GOP field wants, to “repeal it.”

That doesn’t exactly look like Americans rising up against “government takeover of health care,” as GOP candidates continually portray it. According to that poll, most Americans want Obamacare as is, or supersized.

Likewise, a March 2012 Bloomberg poll finds that 57% either agree that the Affordable Care Act “may need small modifications, but we should see how it works” (46%) or “it should be left alone” (11%), while only 37% who think “it should be repealed.”

And then there is a March 2012 Kaiser poll. It finds that 41% of Americans support the Republican solutions of either “repeal and not replace” (23%) or “repeal and replace with a GOP alternative” (18%), while a larger group of 47% supports the Democratic solutions of either “keep law as is” (19%) or “expand the law” (28%).

Finally, Republicans who conclude that those top line Obamacare disapproval numbers indicate that Americans prefer to have Republicans fixing health care in the post-Supreme Court ruling world may want to read further into that Pew poll. Pew found a large plurality of Americans saying that Democrats would “do a better job dealing with health care,” with 49% preferring Democrats and just 35% preferring Republicans.

In other words, be careful what you wish for, Tea Partiers. If the Supreme Court blows up Obamacare, voters may very well prefer to elect Democrats to come up with Plan B.

Reading the top line Obamacare disapproval numbers without digging more deeply into voter research is spin doctor quackery. It’s like a physician concluding that a patient with a headache has a brain tumor, without first digging into detailed diagnostic scans and lab results.

– Loveland

With Independent Voters, Crategate Bites

What do independent voters make of the odd story of Governor Mitt Romney scaring the crap out of his dog by strapping him in a crate to the top of his car at highway speeds? Clark Griswold benign? Cruel and unusual?

According to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted last week:

• By more than a 5-to-1 margin, independent/other voters thought Romney’s treatment of the family dog was “inhumane” (66% said “inhumane”, 12% said it was “humane”).

• By a 12-to-1 margin, independent/other voters said the incident makes them less likely to choose Romney (36% said “less likely”, 3% said “more likely”).

• 55% of independent/other voters had no opinion of Romney on the subject of dog treatment, indicating the story is familiar to about half of Americans at this stage of the campaign.

This issue is not as prominent as “Obamneycare” style flip-floppery. But with the swing voters who will decide the election, Crategate elicits more bite than lick.

– Loveland

Anoka Anti-Bullying Effort is Economic Development?

The War on Differentness
Today’s news reminds us that many parents, kids, and teachers in the Anoka County schools continue to oppose policies designed to prevent bullying of LGBT kids, and others. To them, such policies represent “politically correct (PC)” frivolity, or “promoting the gay agenda.”

But this isn’t just about politics or PC gotchas. There are a lot of other pretty solid reasons for supporting such initiatives. Common decency. Constitutional equality. The Golden Rule.

But since those arguments haven’t swayed opponents of anti-gay bullying initiatives yet, here’s another reason that might resonate on the right.

Jobs, jobs, jobs.

In the book “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth,” author Alexandra Robbins makes the case for Quirk Theory.

Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the same traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside of the school setting.

Quirk theory suggests that popularity in school is not a key to success and satisfaction in adulthood. Conventional notions of popularity are wrong. What if popularity is not the same thing as social success? What if students who are considered outsiders aren’t really socially inadequate at all? Being an outsider doesn’t necessarily indicate any sort of social failing. We do not view a tuba player as musically challenged if he cannot play the violin. He’s just a different kind of musician. A sprinter is still considered an athlete even if she can’t play basketball. She’s a different kind of athlete. Rather than view the cafeteria fringe as less socially successful than the popular crowd, we could simply accept that they are a different kind of social.

To support her theory, Robbins cites many examples of people who were “cafeteria fringe” in high school – “geeks, loners, punks, floaters, nerds, freaks, dorks, gamers, bandies, art kids, theater geeks, choir kids, Goths, weirdos, indies, scenes, emos, skaters, and various types of racial and other minorities” — but later were a resounding success in the adult world. J.K. Rowling. Bruce Springsteen. Steve Jobs. Tim Gunn. Bill Gates.

How many jobs and exports do you suppose those marginalized cafeteria fringers have created for the cafeteria core dwellers?

As for LGBT students, George Mason University Professor George Florida employs a “Bohemian-Gay Index” to find that the more “gay friendly” a city is, the more economically successful it tends to be.

So, maybe this anti-bullying business is about more than just fluffy PC-ness?

Schools can’t eliminate bullying, but they can do more. Robbins finds that teachers and administratrators aren’t nearly as neutral as they claim to be in the War on Differentness. They enforce social hierarchies by creating institutional mechanisms for celebrating athletics, cheerleading and a few select activities over all others. Teachers and administrators set the social cues by who they choose to befriend, praise or spend time with. And they too often turn blind eyes toward subtle and not-so-subtle cruelty.

So, Anoka anti-bullying champions, keep fighting the good fight. It’s the right thing to do. Besides, the jocks could use some more jobs right now.

– Loveland

MLK Day And The Pursuit of Happiness

Suggested manufacturer's retail price: $75,000/year.
Today’s blog tackles a simple subject, the secret of a happy life. Hey, it’s a holiday, so we’re going with an easy topic.

Almost everyone I know — conservative and liberal, wealthy and non-wealthy, spiritual and non-spiritual – would say the happiness of a life should be measured in emotional terms rather than financial terms. That is, they would say the key to a happy life is not to accumulate as much stuff as possible, but to accumulate more positive emotional experiences than negative emotional experiences. For example, a happy life is one that includes more joy, fascination and affection, and less anxiety, sadness and anger. Correct?

Despite this, many of us live our lives in a way that suggests that more money and more stuff is the secret to happiness. We work long hours away from things that give us happiness and subject ourselves to stressful work environments all, we tell ourselves, in pursuit of happiness.

Is that logical?

To a large extent, it is. So sayeth a 2010 Princeton /Gallup /Healthways study. The study tracked people’s emotional well being, or “the quality of a person’s everyday experience, such as joy, fascination, anxiety, sadness, anger and affection.” The study found:

“…as income decreased from $75,000, people reported decreasing happiness and increasing sadness and stress. The pain of life’s misfortunes, including disease, divorce, and being alone, is exacerbated by poverty. In other words, being divorced, being sick, and other painful experiences have worse effects on a poor person than on a rich.”

So, pursuing higher incomes does seem to lead to a happiness gain, because the day-to-day existence at higher income levels reduces overall sadness and stress.

But interestingly, the study also found:

“…emotional well being leveled off at $75,000/year. In other words, the quality of the respondents’ everyday emotional experiences did not improve beyond an income of approximately $75,000 a year; above a certain income level, people’s emotional well being is constrained by other factors, such as temperament and life circumstances.”

So for the 11% of the U.S. population earning personal incomes above $75,000/year, having a higher income does not lead to additional happiness gain.

(Side note: Interestingly, incomes above $75,000 ARE associated with a higher “life evaluation” or “a person’s thoughts about his or her life.” As the study’s authors concluded, “High incomes don’t bring you happiness, but they do bring you a life that you think is better.”)

Remember, the $75,000/year income tipping point identified by Princeton is an average. The precise tipping point obviously varies depending on each individual’s life circumstances. For example, the level may be higher if you have a lot of kids, a lot of debt, no familial financial safety net, or you live in a high cost community. But the important point for this discussion is that a point of diminishing returns does seem to exist where the pursuit of higher incomes no longer furthers the pursuit of happiness.

Today is the holiday celebrating the life of a man who said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” That seems like as good a day as any to contemplate where our personal income-happiness tipping point lies.

– Loveland

Update on the Twitter Early Warning System (TEWS) Project

Readers may recall that back in October I started work on a research project to use Twitter as an early warning system for disasters, accidents, terrorist events and the like.  The notion is that in today’s hyper-connected world the first thing some of us do upon encountering an unexpected event is to Tweet about it and that in all but the most local of events, those Tweets will outrun any physical manifestation of the event.

The first key decision is to determine what set of keywords to use as trip wires.  As the first post indicated, I started out by looking for incidences of “WTF” and “what the fuck” under the assumption that those are the most likely terms used to express unpleasant, unknown surprise in our modern lexicon.  Similarly, I tested other broad terms such as “whoa,” “holy shit” and “what the hell.”

My conclusion is that the global background levels of “WTF” and its ilk are way too high to filter out the truly anomalous incidents from the overwhelming expressions of things like, “WTF? No Coke Zero again?”  “WTF are you doing wearing that dress?”

That has led me to build a more complex but ultimately more useful search set around specific terms.  Using the close-to-real-time filtering of TweetDeck, I’m now tracking:

  • “building shaking”
  • “flash of light”
  • “ground shaking”
  • “hear gunfire”
  • “hear sirens”
  • “huge explosion”
  • “huge noise”
  • “incredibly loud”
  • “lights in the sky”

I’m still getting false positives, of course, but the number is greatly reduced and some meaningful data is beginning to emerge (today’s very small earthquake is eastern Ohio/western Pennsylvania, for example, popped up on this search stream about an hour ago). This is very encouraging, but if anybody has ideas for additional terms, please throw them over the transom.

Next step is to find a way to map Tweets in real-time.  If anybody knows of an application that does such a thing, please let me know.

Happy new year to all.

– Austin

 

 

Something About Mitt

One of the limitations of polling is that respondents sometimes give answers they think will please the interviewer, rather than answers that reflect their true feelings. They do this because they believe their true feelings may be at odds with societal norms. In the public opinion research world, this is referred to as “social desirability bias.”

For instance, a survey respondent who senses that religious tolerance is a dominant norm in society is less likely to want to admit to a stranger conducting a survey interview that Mitt Romney’s Mormonism makes the voter less likely to vote for Romney.

But an interesting thing happens when pollsters approach the issue from a slightly different angle. When Pew Research asked respondents to provide one word that comes to mind when they hear a candidate’s name, we get a glimpse of what is top-of-mind with voters.

Top-of-mind.
You might expect that terms dominant in Romney-related media coverage or ads might rise to top-of-mind status with voters, terms like “Romneycare,” “job creator,” “flip-flopper,” “front-runner,” “slick,” and “businessman.” After all, those topics and descriptors are dominant Romney-related topics in the campaign.

But they aren’t what sticks the most for the most for voters. The number one word that popped into voters’ minds, among both the general public and Republicans, is…

“Mormon.”

Keep in mind, I can’t recall a single ad airing about Romney’s religion. The subject has come up only fleetingly in debates, with Romney’s opponents largely shrugging off the issue. Yet “Mormon,” above all else, is what sticks in voters’ minds, while “Catholic” is not even on the public’s radar when it comes to Newt Gingrich.

This doesn’t tell us that the Mormonism is viewed as a negative by all or even most voters. But the fact that a) “Mormon” is voters’ dominant summation of Romney and b) Romney can’t seem to get get any traction with GOP primary and caucus voters leads me to believe that Mormonism is a bigger factor in this race than many want to admit.

– Loveland

Crowd-Sourcing a Research Project

OK, Rowdies, I need some creative juice for a research project I’m working on.

Last week, I went to an interesting lecture by Michael Chorost, an author and speaker on science and technology.  Mr. Chorost has written two books, one detailing his experience with a cochlear implant and the other, just out, on the interaction between people and technology and how that exchange is becoming more intimate. The lecture was sponsored by the local PRSA chapter as the first of its John Beardsley lecture series.

One of the interesting ideas Mr. Chorost threw out was that Twitter is the beginning of a global nervous system, at least in the sense of conveying emotions.  When the Arab Spring took hold, for example, the emotions of those tweeting their experiences from Tahrir Square and elsewhere reverberated around the world.

Of particular interest to me, given my endless fascination with “bad things” was the notion that the first news of a sudden event – an earthquake, an explosion, a plane crash, etc. – will travel almost instantly around the world via Twitter not in the form of specific news – “a plane has just crashed” – but in the form of a more emotional “WTF was that?” sort of Tweet.  I’ve seen this anecdotally – the first news of the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s Abbottadad compound was a series of Tweets from a neighbor wondering what was causing all the noise in the middle of the night – but Mr. Chorost’s lecture got me wondering if it would be possible to somehow track such sentiments in realtime and to alert us when there’s a spike in such comments.  This might only give you a couple extra minutes heads up, but in some situations, a couple minutes is a huge advantage.

Thus was born over the last couple of days my first efforts at the “WTF Index.” All rights reserved.

The WTFI is trying to track first notice of incidents by scanning the Twitterverse in more or less realtime for the occurrence of certain terms that would be most likely to be Tweeted in the moments immediately following an adverse event. I’m looking less for specifics words than I am for expressions of surprise, fear, shock, etc.  My assumption is that in such situations, most people won’t immediately know the specifics but they will report “huge explosion” or “bright light in the sky” or simply “Whoa” or “WTF?”

There are a couple of challenges with this.

First is finding the right tool.  The volume of global Tweets per second is staggering – at peak times it can pass 8,000 (as it did for the globally significant event of…wait for it…Beyonce’s pregnancy) – which creates  issues of both bandwidth and processing.  The best place to do something like this would be from inside Twitter itself, but since they’re not likely to offer me a job anytime soon (“Hey, Biz…I’m @jmaustin just in case you’re looking) I have to make do with the tools at hand.  For me, that means Tweetdeck and a collection of search terms.

And that’s where I need your help.

So far I’m tracking:

  • Whoa
  • “what was that”
  • “what the hell”
  • uh-oh
  • “huge explosion”
  • “huge noise”
  • “light in the sky”

And, of course…

  • WTF
  • “what the fuck”

Needless to say, these terms produce a huge number of false positives in the sense that most posts that end up in the net are variations on “WTF…no peach yogurt AGAIN???”  There are also way too many hits per minute – between 25 and 125 in my observation so far – to scan each one. Accordingly, I’m just looking at the total number of Tweets that fit the search terms and using that number to look for moments when the Tweeting activity deviates sharply upward from the normal background noise levels.  I haven’t seen it yet (no global disasters since Thursday shockingly) but my expectation is that I’d see a spike when something happened.

So…I’d love the Crowd’s ideas on what to add to the list of search terms.  If something unexpected happened right now in your vicinity and your first instinct was to reach for your Twitter client, what would you Tweet?

Thanks!

– Austin

Expecting More From News-Sponsored Polls

Last week, MinnPost released its inaugural public opinion poll, another step in it’s maturation as an increasingly central part of the Minnesota news landscape. I maintain polls are an important part of news coverage in a democracy, and Minnpost proved it last week when it was the first to tell the story of the public blaming Republicans, by a 2-to-1 margin, for the bitterly debated government shutdown. After months of wonky budget debate coverage, it was interesting to read about the public verdict, as measured by a random sample survey. Our little MinnPost is growing up.

But I have higher aspirations for MinnPost. In the future, I hope MinnPost polls will focus on more than just “approval,” “blame,” and “if the election were held today” questions. Goodness knows, that ground is already covered ad nauseum by the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, Minnesota Public Radio, University of Minnesota Humphrey School, St. Cloud State and many others.

I hope MinnPost, or someone else in that pack, also asks questions that probe the values underpinning the opinions. For example, they could ask something like this:
Continue reading “Expecting More From News-Sponsored Polls”

Indies Rejecting GOP “Cuts Only” Sermon

At some point, Republicans will have to leave the cozy confines of the Tea Party rallies, Lincoln Day dinners, right wing blogs, and conservative talk radio echo chambers. At some point, they have to listen to independent voters. After all, rare is the candidate who can win a general election without earning a sizeable proportion of the 51% of Minnesotans who call themselves “independents.”

When Republicans do start listening to the indies, they’re not going to like what they hear.

Do I hear an "amen?"
“Cuts only” is what the GOP is prosletyzing these days. In Minnesota, their insistence on filling a budget shortfall without new revenue led to a government shutdown and another Republican borrowing binge. So Republicans mostly won the policy fight, but will they win the 2012 electoral fight?

A MinnPost poll published yesterday found that very few Minnesota independents are shouting “amen” to the “cuts only” sermons that conservatives have been so vigorously preaching. While 22% of independents support the cuts only Republican approach, more than three times as many (72%) support using a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, the approach DFL Governor Dayton advocated. That’s a 50-point spread, and other recent polls have had similar findings.
Continue reading “Indies Rejecting GOP “Cuts Only” Sermon”

5 Reasons MN GOP Has More To Lose In Shutdown

Tough sell: Shutdown govt to protect wealthiest 0.3% from sharing in budget pain.
“They’re all to blame!” That will be the dominant public outcry if state government shuts down tonight at midnight. Politically speaking, both Governor Mark Dayton and the GOP-controlled Legislature will lose public support. But here is why Republicans have more to lose:

NUMBERS. In Minnesota right now, there are more GOP legislators than DFL legislators. So if incumbents are voted out in 2012 because of frustration over the shutdown, Republicans simply have more seats to lose. It’s a numbers game, working against Republicans.
Continue reading “5 Reasons MN GOP Has More To Lose In Shutdown”

Dayton’s PR Hand In Budget Negotiations Is Strong

Unless Minnesota’s political climate has changed dramatically from two years ago, Governor Dayton looks to have a much stronger public relations hand to play in upcoming budget negotiations than the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Dayton supports fixing the budget shortfall with a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, a combo platter approach that was supported by the largest group of Minnesotans in an April 2009 Star Tribune poll (look for a simlar Star Tribune poll any day now). Meanwhile, Republicans support fixing the shortfall with spending cuts only, an approach supported by a smaller 40% segment of the population.

When you get down to the level of the two parties’ specific centerpiece proposals, Dayton’s hand gets stronger and the Republican legislators’ hand gets weaker. Republican legislators’ cuts are leaning heavily in the direction of cutting health care for poor people, a position supported by just 22% of Minnesotans. At the same time, Dayton’s much maligned proposal to tax the wealthiest Minnesotans was supported by 67% of Minnesotans in 2009. That’s a 55 point advantage for Dayton.

Dayton proposal in blue, GOP Legislature proposal in red.

So how is it that the Dayton position supported by two-thirds of Minnesotans is consistently declared by the news media to be politically untenable and therefore unfit for serious consideration in budget negotiations?

If the budget debate were a poker game — and it obviously is a higher stakes contest than that –I’d much rather have Dayton’s hand than the Republican Legislature’s hand.

– Loveland

Tricky Politics For GOP On Budget Compromise

Savvy politicians should always have two voices in their head – their base and independent voters. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, those two voices are not exactly in unison for Republican leaders negotiating the parameters of the federal budget.

GOP BASE WANTS GOP TO DIG IN

Fully 56% of Republicans nationally say that GOP leaders in Congress should “stick to their positions,” by which they presumably mean cut exclusively and deeply. At the same time, only 36% want them to “make compromises,” by which they presumably mean that Republicans should meet Democrats in the middle by cutting less deeply and/or considering tax increases or tax loophole cuts.

INDIES WANT GOP TO COMPROMISE

At the same time, among independent citizens — who Republicans almost always need in order to win a plurality in elections — the findings are the polar opposite of the findings for Republican citizens. Two-thirds of independents (66%) want Republican leaders to “make compromises,” by which they presumably mean that Republicans should meet in the middle between Democratic and GOP positions. Only 33% of independents want Republican leaders to “stick to their positions.”

If you see Republican Speaker John Boehner looking bewildered these days, this could be why.

DEM BASE AND INDIES BOTH WANT DEMS TO COMPROMISE

The citizen feedback for Democrats is more clear. Almost seven of ten (68%) Democrats in America want their Democratic leaders in Washington to make compromises, while only a quarter (26%) want them to stick to their positions. In other words, Republican voters are more than twice as likely as Democratic voters — 56% for GOPers versus 26% for Democrats — to be urging their leaders to stick to their positions.

And what about the independents that Democrats desperately need in order to win elections? Three-fourths of them also want Democratic congressional leaders to compomise.

So, Obama and Democratic Members of Congress have the voices of their compromise-friendly base and compromise-friendly independents buzzing in their ears. For my liberal friends who bemoan the fact that Obama and congressional Democrats are weaker negotiators than Republicans, this is a big reason why.

– Loveland

Jobs, Not Health Care Reform?

Source: Health Partners, February 2010 (graphic from MinnPost)
When the recent Massachusetts Senate race gave Senate Republicans their 41-vote majority, pundits, pollsters and political consultants told us that President Obama and congressional Democrats had to give up on health care and instead focus on jobs.

After all, that was what was written on the modern day stone tablets delivered from the mountaintop – public opinion surveys. Jobs and economic development were topping the polls, while health care was much further down the list.

Ee gads. Almost immediately, you started hearing pollophobic pols dutifully repeating the word “jobs” like trained cockatiels. Forget “affordable health care,” the political consultants lectured the political class. Focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs!” The word “jobs” quickly became to 2010, what “terrorism” was to late 2001.

To inform the new “jobs” policy proposals needed to accompany this rhetoric, the logical thing to do would seem to be to ask small business owners, who create most of the jobs in America, what they need to expand their businesses. Stimulate the economy with more government spending? Cut business taxes again? Stimulate better access to capital? Create more consumer demand, by, for instance, giving consumers another tax break?

Well, in a survey of Minnesota and Western Wisconsin small business owners released today by Health Partners, all of those things were on the list of things named. But at the very top of the list, topping the aforementioned job creation proposals by more than 3-to-1 margins, was, drum roll please…

…”affordable health care.”

So, it looks like it’s déjà vu all over again. It turns out we don’t need a focus on jobs instead of affordable health care. We need a focus on affordable health care in order to create jobs.

And new numbers released today show that the health reform bill bottled up in the Senate could help. For instance, an estimated 72,400 small businesses in Minnesota could be helped by a small businesses tax credit proposal that makes premiums more affordable.

Which begs the question, what do the cockatiels do now?

– Loveland

Grand Old Paranoia

I’m speechless about a new Daily Kos/Research 2000 survey, drawn from a national sample of 2,000 self-described Republicans. The survey found:

• 68% either believe Obama should be impeached (39%), or are not sure (29%)
• 58% either have concluded Obama was not born in the U.S. (36%), or aren’t sure (22%)
• 64% either feel their President is a “racist who hates white people” (31%), or aren’t sure (33%)
• 79% either think President Obama is a socialist (63%), or are unsure (16%)
• 57% either believe their Commander-in-Chief wants “the terrorists to win” (24%), or are not sure (33%)
• 76% either are convinced ACORN stole the 2008 election (21%), or are not sure (55%)

I’m not a big fan of President George W. Bush. But if I had announced to the world during his first year in office that he should be impeached because he is secretly an illegal alien, facist, who hates black people, and wants the terrorists to win, my relatives would have had me commited.

I’m sure of it. Even if I had just said that I was on the fence about those conclusions, they would have had me in a straight jacket. Not just my Republican relatives, but my Democratic relatives as well.

I grew up in one of the reddest states in the nation, and so I like to think I understand Republicans pretty well, and usually like them. Daily Kos doesn’t hide it’s liberal bent, but Research 2000 claims it had the most accurate final state and congressional polls of any firm in the nation in the 2005, 2004, 2002 and 2000 elections in ten states.

But still, can this possibly be true?

– Loveland

tax preparation services nice

New News is Mostly No News

Pew Research Center: How News Happens
“New Media” produces almost no new news, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Baltimore area news stories.

Pew found that eight out of 10 stories in the Baltimore area contained previously published information. About 95% of the stories with original content came from mainstream media sources, mostly newspapers. According to Pew, only 4% of the new news comes from New Media.

Continue reading “New News is Mostly No News”

Teabaggers Not Listening to “The People”

Americans are conservative in the abstract, but liberal in the specific.

That’s the message from a Pew Research survey released today. While 53% say the abstract notion of “deficit reduction” should be a “top priority,” most also want to INCREASE spending on nearly every type of government endeavor, and don’t want to cut anywhere.

Despite the growing deficit, the survey found that a plurality of Americans want to spend MORE, not less, on health care, energy, education, veterans’ benefits, Medicare, military defense, assistance for the unemployed, combating crime, and environmental protection (in order of most support to least).

The survey found almost no support for the more libertarian viewpoints expressed at Tea Party and Ron Paul rallies. For instance, just 6 percent support cutting spending on the massive Medicare entitlement program, or “government-run health care.”

The only two areas in which a plurality of Americans didn’t support more spending were 1) international humanitarian assistance and 2) funding for the State Department and American embassies. But even in these least popular areas, those who wanted to keep funding the same or increase it still overwhelmingly outnumbered those who wanted to decrease funding.

The Pew findings indicate that conservatives who blame government spending on “politicians who don’t listen to ‘we the people’” are themselves not listening to the people. According to this surey, the politicians supporting more government spending are representing the will of most Americans. If the Tea Parties want a smaller government and a democratically responsive government, they should be shouting down their pals at home, not their pols in DC.

– Loveland

Skewed Rude Feud

Health Care Debate Seen as _Rude and Disrespectful__ Summary of Findings - Pew Research Center for the People & the PressJust how divided are Americans in the health care debate? According to a Pew Research Center survey, most Americans, Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly feel that health reform opponents own most of the blame for rudeness and disrespect in the health reform debate. But Republicans not only have a polar opposite view on this question, they do so by more than a two-to-one margin. Remarkable.

Regardless of how you feel about who is at fault for the rude feud, my question is a little different: How can we hope to get anything done in our democratic bodies with such deep mutual distrust across party lines?

— Loveland