Do more people feel better off now than when Howard was elected?

According to an article in this week’s Bulletin, more people (36.5%) feel that they are not better off than before John Howard was elected PM than feel that they are better off (32.6%). The question seems to have been badly worded, with the apparent options being ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘the same’ – the magazine interpreted ‘no’ as ‘worse off’, but without spelling this out clearly some people who think things haven’t changed much could have answered ‘no’.

Even so, only a third thinking they are better off seems low. Income distribution analysis suggests that the benefits of prosperity have been spread through all socio-economic groups. And it’s been a good eleven years for technology-driven improvements: the internet and mobile phones particularly, but also home entertainment. Unemployment is at a 30-year low, and workforce participation at an all-time high.

There are theories that explain why perceptions lag objective statistics on issues like this, particularly when the question asks the respondent whether he or she feels better off. The happiness research has made much of the process of adaptation. When our objective standard of living improves we feel better for a while, but after a while we get used to it. Psychologists such as Danny Gilbert argue that we are not very good at recalling past emotional states. But Gilbert’s theory also suggests that because we can’t remember how we felt, we use theories of how we would have felt instead. Do people’s ‘theories’ of 1996 suggest that things were better then than now?

There is another odd aspect to this poll. Another question asked whether respondents thought that Australia was better off now than before Howard was elected PM. This received a slightly more positive response – 39.4% said yes (compared to 32.6% for the personal question) and 36.8% said no (virtually the same). That’s unusual, because in survey research respondents normally think others are doing worse than they are – partly because views of others are formed from media reports, which tend to focus on negatives, while information sources about oneself are more balanced.

I’m not sure why the personal/Australia in general answers are the reverse of the normal pattern. But I am pretty sure I know why the overall result is so negative.

First, like Newspoll’s recent questions on how issues affect voting, the Bulletin‘s poll mixed in a partisan element by mentioning John Howard. Back in 2004, the Saulwick pool had asked a more neutral ‘Would you say that you are better off, worse off, or about the same as you were ten years ago?’. 52% said better off and 23% said worse off. That result would seem more consistent with the objective statistics. But Howard’s name was a cue for Labor voters to give a negative answer, whose ‘theories’ of pre-1996 include the assumption that things must be better under Labor.

Second, it looks as if Labor voters were over-sampled. This theory is supported by comparing answers to the Bulletin‘s poll with similar questions asked by other pollsters. For example, on the question of which party the respondent would trust to handle the economy, Labor and Liberal were equally divided in the Bulletin‘s poll. But Newspoll had the Coalition at double Labor. On the question of who would make the better Prime Minister, the Bulletin‘s poll found 28% for Howard, while Newspoll found 37% and ACNielsen 43%. On the Budget, the Bulletin poll recorded 27% who thought that they would be better off, compared to 36% of Newspoll respondents.

The Daily Telegraph also thought that these results were implausible. And with gender-studies PhD and Maxine McKew friend Rebecca Huntley involved in framing the questions, they concluded that the bad result for the Liberals was indeed a remarkable coincidence.

I think there is probably a more mundane explanation. Ispos, the firm that conducted the survey for the Bulletin, doesn’t do much political polling in Australia, and this looks very much like they bungled their sample as a result, over-interviewing Labor supporters. Combine that with a poorly-worded question and we are left very much doubting that Australians feel as badly about their situation now compared to 1996 as the Bulletin would have us believe.

53 thoughts on “Do more people feel better off now than when Howard was elected?

  1. Sinclair, thank you for the link. I see The Library Journal review sums it up as “Recommended only as documentation of an anomaly in the history of ideas.” You know you can always trust a librarian.



    Presumably Russell, the key line from the “Do Good Anyway” link you provided that characterises your response is this:

    “If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives… be kind anyway.”

    However, if you go back and read my post carefully, you will see that nothing in it accuses people of who undertake self-sacrificing acts of being selfish or of having ulterior motives. All my post does is indicate that altruistic behaviours can be modelled or characterised as if they are the result of self-interested* decisions. One can equally model or characterise them as deriving purely from the other-interested behaviour, or as purely from “valor, courage, nobility or magnaminity” etc, or as emanating from the alignment of Venus and Neptune in Fifth Quadrant during the Equinox, or whatever. The question then becomes: which of these approaches is fittest for the purpose at hand – whatever it may.

    Of course, these other explanations come with their own difficulties: for instance, if you want to run with the “courage” explanation, can you say whether the 9/11 terrorists were being courageous? And, whatever your answer, what does it imply for government policy? (Good luck.)

    Nevertheless, and even though a self-interest framework does not preclude the possibility that courage and nobility etc are important drivers of self-sacrificing and altruistic behaviour, you might say that simply modelling self-sacrificing or other-concerning behaviour in an individual benefit-cost way somehow takes away from the “magic” that it entails – the psychic costs of market rhetoric, if you will. Presumably this is what your last line about an such a framework being “too small and mean a framework to want to bother with” is about.

    While I think your comment betrays an imperfect understanding of the framework and its value, if the purpose at hand is to inspire more Simpons, or more jihadists, or more self-sacrificing mums, or more donations to worthy causes etc, then emphasising the courage and nobility explanation – ideas that come pre-imbued with social prestige – rather than the self-interest approach is indeed probably the way to go.


    * Just to clarify (in case my earlier post was unclear), selfishness refers to purely self-concerning behaviour – that is, being devoted to one’s own wellbeing, regardless of the effects on others; whereas the concept of self-interest in economics allows for a person’s concerns for the wellbeing of others to enter his or her utility function.


  3. That is a fantastic blurb 🙂 but wrong. Ms Rand was remarkably prescient in her description of ‘looters’.


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