Get Out the Vote: A minority of voters charts our future

This entry is part 4 of 10 in the series Get Out the Vote
An Onion story blaming low voter turnout on Zombie attacks

HUMOR MAGAZINE ‘THE ONION’ produced this classic zombies-cause-low-turnout story some years ago. It seemed funny at the time. Kidding aside, though, voter turnout continues to shrink.

NOTE FROM DR. WAYNE BAKER: Contributing columnist Terry Gallagher is exploring the values Americans place on voting. This is his fourth column …

The people have spoken.

At least some of them have.

This week, while primary elections were held across the country, we’ve been looking at how Americans vote and what it says about the value we place on our freedom to participate in the political process.

From the numbers, you might conclude that most Americans don’t think voting is all that important.

In Michigan, where I vote, more than 80 percent of the eligible voters didn’t cast a ballot this week. That’s not an all-time low, but still pretty dismal, especially when it’s likely that the primary winners will be shoo-ins in the November general election.

Political scientists have a number of theories about low turnout, and the possible reasons are all over the map: some people don’t vote because they believe that all politics is evil, while others don’t vote because they’re happy with the government we have now.

But one major reason that people don’t vote is because they believe it doesn’t matter, that their vote won’t change anything.

In fact, I thought that back when I was a teenage smart-aleck know-it-all. I thought that until I tried it out on the principal of my high school.

I told him that it didn’t really matter how I voted, that elections are rarely decided by a single vote anyhow.

“It matters to you,” he pointed out.

And now I think of that every time I walk into the polling place.

Why vote? Because it matters to you.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS THIS SUMMER: Terry Gallagher has written about a wide range of topics. You can read more than 100 of his past columns by clicking on this link. Email us at [email protected] with suggestions for Terry. And Please, we always invite you to comment (below) or to share this column on Facebook (use the blue-“f” icons).

Why wait? How do we decide what to fix first?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Why wait?
Spuyten Duyvil derailment site from Henry Hudson Bridge hill

WHEN ‘KICKING IT DOWN THE ROAD’ ISN’T SAFE: Last year, this train derailed in the Bronx, killing 4 and injuring 59 of 115 the passengers. The immediate cause was a failure of the engineer to properly slow the train in an area of tight curves. However, federal regulators had identified such curves as a problem; they called for installation of new automated controls nationwide; then they decided to delay the requirements until 2015.

Yesterday’s post argued that kicking the can down the road might actually be the right strategy at the right moment, that by taking stopgap measures now we might be able to come up with better solutions later. And that kind of procrastination can work on the household level just as effectively as it does on the political scene.

All homeowners know the checkbook arithmetic that goes into calculating whether it’s time to replace the roof, or to replace the windows first.

Government officials wrestle with similar challenges: If that bridge isn’t falling down right now, maybe we can replace the public library. But it’s pretty clear that at some point, we have to stop with the delaying tactics and face the tough choices.

A couple of years ago, talking about his city’s budget problems, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the New York Times, “We can’t kick the can down the road because we’ve run out of road.”

Another NYT story from earlier this year, about risks in pension funds, said: “This is not something that can wait a few years. If people kick the can down the road, they’ll find it went off a cliff.”

Some problems can’t wait, and need to be solved now. When you’ve run out of road, you should stop kicking the can.

What problems do you wish our leaders wouldn’t wait before fixing?

Space: How important is our space program?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Space
Project Mercury Astronauts 1959

“THE RIGHT STUFF” Project Mercury Astronauts in 1959, front row, left to right, Walter H. Schirra, Jr., Donald K. Slayton, John H. Glenn, Jr., and Scott Carpenter; back row, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. Gus Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper.

NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—was founded in 1958. Since then, NASA’s cumulative budget (adjusted for inflation) has been almost $800 billion, according to government sources. Peak funding was in the late 1960s with the Apollo program and the moon landing. Funding has fallen dramatically since then.

Is this drop in funding a good thing? How important is our space program?

Just over half of all Americans (52%) say it is extremely or very important that we “maintain the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United States space program,” according to a YouGov poll late last year. An additional 28% say it’s moderately important, bringing the total to 80% of Americans who say it’s at least moderately important to maintain NASA and the space program.

Why is maintaining the space program important? Here are five possible reasons. How would you rank them?

  • “The space mission drives technological progress that trickles into other parts of the economy.”
  • “Exploration and discovery are essential for human progress.”
  • “Space technology is an important element of our telecommunications infrastructure.”
  • “Space is an important element of our defense strategy.”
  • “It is important to support human excellence in all its forms.”

These are the top five reasons given by those who think it’s important to maintain the U.S. space program, according to YouGov. And, I presented them in order from most to least support. Trickle-down benefits to the economy are the most popular reason, given by 58% of those who support the program. But a close second is more romantic and idealistic—space exploration and discovery are essential for human progress.

How important do you think it is to maintain NASA and the U.S. space program?

If you think it’s important, what are your reasons?

Do you agree with reasons above—or is something else on your list?

Divided America: Is ‘liberty’ what you really want?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Divided America
Two images of Lady Liberty from World War I

THE MANY FACES OF LIBERTY: This summer marks the centennial of World War I. Here are two popular images of Lady Liberty used on posters during WWI.

Today is the start of the Memorial Day weekend, with the official federal holiday on Monday. It’s a time when we pause and remember the men and women who died while serving in the country’s armed forces. It is often said that they died to preserve our liberty. But is liberty really something you want?

This week, we’ve explored several areas where Americans are deeply divided. These include divided beliefs about God as the source of moral authority, the traditional family model, America’s moral destiny, and the tradeoff of freedom and security. Today, we consider beliefs about the value of liberty. You might be surprised to learn what Americans think about it!

Liberty means freedom from restraint—being able to do whatever you want. In my surveys, I asked about this meaning of liberty in two different ways. I intentionally didn’t use the word “liberty” because I wanted to avoid having the word (rather than the definition) influence responses.

Here are two statements. To what extent do you agree or disagree with each one?

“Freedom is being left alone to do what I want.”

“Freedom is having a government that doesn’t interfere in my life.”

Almost four of ten Americans (39%) agreed with the first statement, a figure that barely changed over the four surveys. Just under half (48%) disagreed, however, saying that they did not endorse this idea. Only 14% were neutral.

I found a similar pattern for the second statement. About half agreed with it. Over a third (35%) disagreed, and only 15% were neutral.

Liberty is in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but beliefs about it are sharply divided.

We do find agreement, however, when we talk about freedom of expression and freedom as the right to participate in elections and politics. These are widely shared core values, as I describe in United America.

At the start of the Memorial Day weekend, what does “freedom” mean to you?

How about “liberty”?

Pothole Nation: What is America’s grade on infrastructure?

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation
Report Card on America's Infrastructure

Click on this logo to read the Report Card.

America has a Report Card on its infrastructure, given by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE). What grade does the country get?

Hint: It’s not even a “Gentleman’s C.”

In fact, if a schoolchild came home with America’s infrastructure grade, the kid would be grounded for a year.

The ASCE assigns grades from A to F on the basis of “physical condition and needed fiscal investments for improvement,” according to the ASCE web site. An overall GPA is given to the nation as a whole, and to each state. Grades are also broken down by infrastructure type, such as water and environment, transportation (bridges, roads, ports, transit, etc.), public facilities, and energy.

The nation’s overall grade is a D+. The nation has been getting poor grades for many years. “Since 1998,” says the ASCE, “the grades have been near failing, averaging only Ds, due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories.”

Of the 16 specific categories, 12 get grades in the D- to D+ range. The four highest grades are bridges (C+), ports (C), rail (C+), and solid waste (B-).

The estimated investment needed by 2020 to fix all this is a whopping $3.6 trillion.

Are you surprised by our near-failing grades?

If you were in charge, what would you do?

What would you fix first? Where would you start?

Pothole Nation: Who’s to blame?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Pothole Nation
New Orleans Brightmoor pothole

POTHOLES ARE EVERYWHERE! Think it’s a “Northern problem”? This monster is on a side street in New Orleans. Photo by Bart Everson, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you have a pothole you love to hate?

Spring is finally here, giving us mild weather in which to enjoy the aftermath of the polar vortex: potholes. Tire-popping, frame-rattling, axle-snapping, backbone-jarring potholes. What’s the state of roads where you live? Who’s to blame for all the potholes?

The issue of potholes is a great values question because it involves so many principles and priorities. We loathe taxes but we want government services like durable roads. We can blame the potholes on local and state politicians, or the trucking industry, or poor urban planning, or global warming, or more. Maybe we just drive too much.

Michigan, my home state, spends less money per capita than any state in the union on roads and bridges, according to U.S. Census data. Neighboring states in the Midwest spend much more. But this hasn’t stopped the pothole problem in the region. Chicago has so many big potholes that a spoof appeared claiming that “missing plane found in Chicago pothole.” This was poor taste but it made a point.

A new poll of Michiganders reports that 28% blame the state legislature. Almost the same percentage (24%) blames Governor Snyder. Republicans are more likely to the blame the legislature, the poll finds, while Democrats are more likely to blame the governor—though they placed plenty of blame on the Republican-controlled legislature as well.

Fingers were also pointed at county government (9%), local government (7%), and special interest groups (8%). Only 5% laid blame on the voters. Twenty percent didn’t have an answer or were undecided.

What’s the state of roads where you live?

Where’s the pothole you love to hate?

Who’s to blame for all the potholes?

False Truths: ‘When all you have is a hammer …’

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series False Truths

Sometimes a hammer is the right tool … maybe. These two Civilian Conservation Corps “boys” in the 1930s were charged with breaking big rocks into gravel.

You can complete the sentence, don’t you?

“When all you have is a hammer—everything looks like a nail.” That’s one of those axioms you hear pretty regularly. Most often it’s used to describe a person or process lacking refinement or subtlety.

This week, we’re looking at false truths, phrases often repeated as if they are true, but might actually not be.

While the expression certainly has its roots in folk wisdom, it became one of the touchstones of psychological literature when it was cited in Abraham Maslow’s The Psychology of Science, published in 1966.

According to the Wikipedia entry: “The concept known as the law of the instrument, Maslow’s hammer, gavel or a golden hammer is an over-reliance on a familiar tool.”

It’s a form of confirmation bias, and the narrow-minded approach it represents is generally a curse to problem solving.

But wait a second. Hammers can be pretty darned useful, and not just for driving nails. And they might in fact be the perfect tool for the task at hand.

In the real world, there are lots of different hammers, of course, for everything from driving in upholstery tacks to breaking big stones into little ones. I keep a rubber mallet in the kitchen to help drive a cleaver through acorn squash.

A recent blog on Forbes cited a few more non-practical uses of hammers, like making noise and breaking things.

So if everything looks like a nail to you? Maybe it’s not your hammer.

What other False Truths should we have listed this week?