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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Knowledge, Deliberation, and Economic Policy

The Federal Reserve this week decided not to end an important policy.  The public, which knows very little about the Fed, scarcely noticed. On the eve of the decision, Reuters explained:
The Fed's $2.8 trillion "quantitative easing" program has, among other things, lifted stock prices to record highs, driven interest rates to record lows and put a floor under what had been a reeling housing market.
Yet barely a quarter of Americans even know what it is.

A poll leading up to the Fed's pivotal decision, expected Wednesday afternoon, found just 27 percent of U.S. adults could pick the correct definition of quantitative easing from among five possible answers
 Twelve percent of respondents thought QE was a computer-assisted program that the Fed uses to manipulate the dollar. Another 11 percent thought it was part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation enacted following the crisis.
To be sure, two of the more popular incorrect answers - "a way the Fed makes it easier for commercial banks to borrow money from Fed and relend it to consumers," and "when the Fed repeatedly lowers its official interest rate" - were in the right ballpark, if not completely on target.
After all, quantitative easing is geared to reducing borrowing costs.
But for a Fed that has emphasized how important communications are - and how much the effectiveness of its policies depends on the public's understanding of their impact on inflation and employment - the fact that 73 percent of respondents cannot define the critical program suggests the Fed has a serious communications challenge.
 TechCrunch reports on deliberative polling, one effort to address the problem.
Most Americans are ignorant of policy issues. Two-thirds can’t name a single Supreme Court Justice, only 37 percent of young Americans can’t find Iraq on a map, one-third believes President Obama is a Muslim, and (as of 1999) 20 percent still think the sun revolves around the Earth.
Despite their lack of knowledge, Americans will answer questions related to things they know nothing about. Last year, 39 percent had an opinion about a completely imaginary budget plan.
Which is where “deliberative polling” comes in. It’s a social-statistical process of educating a randomly selected group of citizens in an attempt to understand what Americans would think about an issue.
And we’re going to be testing it out here on TechCrunch.
We’re going to be the media partner on a $165,000 Knight Foundation grant to business consulting firm, Refram It, which will develop a new method of deliberative polling for media organizations.The godfather of deliberative polling, Stanford Professor James Fishkin, will be helping us adapt the procedure (note: TechCrunch is not the recipient of the grant, it is the media partner. Reframe it is the recipient).
Specifically, Fishkin and Reframe It, a company co-founded by his son, Bobby Fishkin, will conduct two deliberative polls related to a few technology policy issues, including immigration reform and the National Security Agency. Over the next few months, we will publish stories about the process of deliberative polling and (hopefully) release the first results later this fall.