catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Is Australia a meaner society?

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According to a poll published in the Fairfax broadsheets this morning, half of us think that Australia has become a “meaner” society during John Howard’s decade in power. Of course, that’s what our friends on the left are always telling us. But what evidence exists to support this proposition? Actually, very little.

Late last year, the Giving Australia project reported on two indicators that might provide objective measures of Australians becoming more mean, donations to non-profit bodies and volunteer work. Using large ABS surveys, they found that between 1997 and 2004 the proportions of Australians making donations increased by 18 percentage points, and the real value of the donations went up by 58%. The volunteering rate increased steadily from 24% in 1995 to 41% in 2004. Perhaps all this is still too ‘mean’. There’s a lot of people not making much of a contribution. But the trend is undoubtedly up.

What of forced generosity? Using the tax revenues of a strong economy, the Howard government has spent up more than its Labor predecessors. For example, in health its spending increases averaged 6.3% a year in real terms between 1997-98 and 2002-03, compared to 4.7% a year between 1993-94 and 1997-98. All this was endorsed by public opinion, as my paper on tax and spend opinion showed. Admittedly, as I argued in the paper, this is less than pure altruism – people are hoping to improve the services they might have to use. But they are at least willing to consider higher taxes to provide services anyone can use.

Nor have our self-perceptions changed if we compare them at two points in time, rather than requiring people to compare over time. In 1997 and 2005 Newspoll asked its respondents about possible characteristics of ‘Australians today’ . In January 1997 74% of us thought that ‘caring’ was a good description of Australians today. In December 2005 it was exactly the same, 74%. Similarly, in January 1997 63% of us thought that we were ‘community minded’. In December 2005 it was 64%. In December 2005, 44% thought that Australians were ‘racist’, but that was exactly the same figure as in January 1997. Tolerance, however, is down slightly, from 56% to 53%.

The available evidence doesn’t support the idea that Australia has become a meaner society under Howard. Howard hating aside, however, this result is not terribly surprising. In an article I published a couple of years ago, I had a go at trying to explain the odd results frequently found when poll respondents are asked to compare over time. What the research on reasoning about these comparisons suggests is that over time we are typically more likely to forget bad things than good. While this is favourable for our current state of mind, it leads to over-positive views of the past (those ‘good old days’ memories). By contrast, when evaluating the present bad things are fresher in the memory, and so the present looks relatively bad. These problems are particularly acute when we are asked about things we don’t know about from everyday experience. While we might know about our own charitable giving, the average person hardly knows aggregate donations the way many know cricket or football scores. Their estimates of both now and the past are likely to be wildly wrong. This is why we need the reality check of empirical evidence.

Written by Admin

February 20, 2006 at 7:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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