Big test for pollsters

The polling industry faces a big test this election as we will see whether or not they are reliable in this age of cell-phones and the public’s growing unwillingness to answer their questions.  From Robert J. Samuelson:

Among pollsters, there’s fear that changing technology (mainly cellphones) and growing public unwillingness to do interviews are undermining telephone surveys — and that there’s no accurate replacement in sight. A recent study by the Pew Research Center reported its response rate at 9 percent, down from 36 percent in 1997. Put differently: in 1997, Pew made about three residential calls to get one response; now it makes 10.

Beginning with answering machines and caller-ID in the ’70s and ’80s, suspicious Americans have become more selective in screening calls. Robo-calls — automated messages for products, politicians, charities and polls — have deepened the hostility. “The mass of communications coming into people’s homes ends up being a blur,” says Pew pollster Scott Keeter.

Cellphones pose problems because people who use them exclusively — people who don’t have landline phones — are younger, poorer and more Democratic than the general population. By late 2011, 32 percent of Americans 18 and over had only a cellphone, up from 16 percent in early 2008. Among those 25 to 29, the share was 60 percent. Under-surveying these people could distort polls. Many pollsters, though not all, now canvass cellphones. But this is increasingly expensive. By present trends, half of Americans could be exclusive cellphone users by the 2016 election. . .

Less reassuring is telephone polling’s steep and rising costs, which could cause cash-strapped media organizations to balk. Contacting cellphones is expensive, because numbers must be dialed by hand. By contrast, computers can automatically dial landline numbers, making it easier to reach live people. (Congress prohibited this for cellphones to protect people from paying for unsolicited incoming calls.) A typical survey costs Pew from $60,000 to $100,000, says Keeter. That would cover renting tens of thousands of landline and cellphone numbers to produce 1,500 interviews of about 20 minutes each.

The solution seems obvious: switch to the Internet. But technically, that’s hard. Internet users may not be a representative sample of the U.S. population. Does the person behind that e-mail live in the United States? Permanent panels of respondents may act differently from randomly contacted people. Experiments are under way. Meanwhile, pollsters are stretched between a past that’s growing untenable and a future that doesn’t yet exist.

via Robert J. Samuelson: Pollsters’ moment of truth – The Washington Post.

To pick up on some of our earlier conversation, it may well be true that pollsters are undercounting Republicans.  But they are also undercounting those who exclusively use cell phones; that is, younger voters who tend to vote Democrat.  But we shall see what happens on November 6.

Copyright and re-sales from overseas

The Supreme Court is considering a case that requires the wisdom of Solomon:

Supap Kirtsaeng was studying in the United States when he struck a nerve in the publishing world by tapping into the market for cheaper college textbooks. Kirtsaeng re-sold copyrighted books that relatives first bought abroad.

His profitable venture provoked a copyright infringement lawsuit from publisher John Wiley & Sons. The case is being argued Monday at the high court.

Kirtsaeng used eBay to sell $900,000 worth of books published abroad by Wiley and others and made about $100,000 in profit. The international editions of the textbooks were essentially the same as the more costly American editions. A jury in New York awarded Wiley $600,000 after deciding Kirtsaeng sold copies of eight Wiley textbooks without permission.

The issue at the Supreme Court concerns what protection the holder of a copyright has after a product made outside the United States is sold for the first time. In this case, the issue is whether U.S. copyright protection applies to items that are made abroad, purchased abroad and then resold in the U.S. without the permission of the manufacturer. The high court split 4-4 when it tried to answer that question in a case in 2010 involving Costco and Swiss watch maker Omega. . . .

The court already has rejected copyright claims over U.S.-made items that were sold abroad and then brought back to the United States for re-sale.

The current case has attracted so much attention because it could affect many goods sold on eBay, Google and other Internet sites, and at Costco and other discount stores. The re-sale of merchandise that originates overseas often is called the gray market, and it has an annual value in the tens of billions of dollars.

Consumers benefit from this market because manufacturers commonly price items more cheaply abroad than in the United States.

The federal appeals court in New York sided with Wiley in this case.

EBay and Google say in court papers that the appellate ruling “threatens the increasingly important e-commerce sector of the economy.” Art museums fear that the ruling, if allowed to stand, would jeopardize their ability to exhibit art created outside the United States.

Conversely, the producers of copyrighted movies, music and other goods say that their businesses will be undercut by unauthorized sales if the court blesses Kirtsaeng’s actions. . . .

[Attorney Theodore]  Olson said there may be good reasons why manufacturers price the same goods differently for domestic and foreign sales, including lower incomes and standards of living in many foreign countries.

via Online, discount sellers back Thai student in Supreme Court copyright case – The Washington Post.

This would seem to be a corollary of the global economy.  Prices are lower in some lower-income markets.  But now it’s possible for consumers in high-price markets to use the internet to buy from the lower-cost countries.

Buying drugs from Canada would be another example, once considered by pharmacy companies as even less fair because the Canadian government subsidizes drugs in that country and makes them cheaper than the free market would dictate.

The advantage to consumers is obvious, but can a company stay in business that way?  Would it force companies to charge high-price market rates in poor countries, thus preventing citizens of poorer nations from buying what they need and would otherwise be able to buy?

And copyright adds another dimension.  Writers get nothing when their works are re-sold in used bookstores or online, which has always struck me, being an author, as wrong, though I can’t think of an alternative that wouldn’t also be wrong.


We’re battening down our hatches, getting ready for what they are calling “Frankenstorm,” a monster begotten by Hurricane Sandy becoming one flesh with a Northeaster.  The brunt of the storm is supposed to hit us today and/or Tuesday.  We’re in northern Virginia, not the coast, but we may get lots and lots of wind and rain.  We’ve stocked up with food, batteries, and other necessities.  We’ve pulled inside the lawn furniture, my prized Hasty-Bake BBQer, and everything else that might blow away.  So I guess we’re ready.   A soft summer breeze is enough to blow out our electricity where we live, so I can only imagine what a Frankenstorm will do.

But at least, as my wife says, people here in the D.C. area are talking about something other than politics.  The storm is going to affect Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and the undecided, all equally.  We are all in this together.  The storm is a unifying factor.

At any rate,  if I don’t post anything for the next day or so, that means we lost power and got knocked off the internet.  Stay tuned, and I’ll report when I can.

Hurricane Sandy Will Affect Millions and Cost Billions.


UPDATE:  Since my school has been cancelled, until the electricity goes out, I think I’ll put up some posts timed to appear on the next couple of days.

The death of a true intellectual

Jacques Barzun died at age 104.  A scholar of breath-taking range, Barzun, a French immigrant, was a cultural historian wrote about literature, history, music, philosophy, religion, education, how to write well, and baseball.  (He is the source of the quotation, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  A champion of the liberal arts, he was a key developer of the “great books” approach to higher education.  He was a critic of Darwinism, existentialism, and other modern and postmodern philosophies.  Though his positions seemed largely in accord with a Christian perspective, he did not profess any personal Christian convictions.  And yet, he was baptized and sometimes attended both Catholic and Protestant churches.  (See this for the question of his religious beliefs.)

From his obituary in the Washington Post:

Jacques Barzun, a Columbia University historian and administrator whose sheer breadth of scholarship — culminating in a survey of 500 years of Western civilization — brought him renown as one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died Oct. 25 in San Antonio, where he had lived in recent years. He was 104. . . .

Dr. Barzun was 92 when he published what is widely regarded as his masterwork, “From Dawn to Decadence, 500 Years of Western Cultural Life: 1500 to the Present.” Journalist David Gates spoke for a majority of critics when he wrote in Newsweek magazine that the book, which appeared in 2000, “will go down in history as one of the great one-man shows of Western letters.”

Dr. Barzun sustained one of the longest and brightest careers in academia, having first risen to prominence as a professor who helped shape Columbia University’s approach to general education. He later was dean of the graduate school, dean of faculties and provost. . . . [Read more…]

Winning the popular vote but losing the election

Polls now show Mitt Romney leading the popular vote, but President Obama still has the advantage in the electoral college (see today’s post on that subject).  Which raises the prospect of Romney winning the most votes, but Obama getting re-elected anyway by carrying states with the most electoral votes.  Some experts say there is a 50-50 chance of that happening.  That would be the 5th time in history this has happened–mostly recently, when George W. Bush won his first election–and the first time for an incumbent.  See Romney, Obama could split popular and electoral college vote, polls suggest – The Washington Post.

The electoral vote picture


 RCP Poll AverageElectoral Votes
Swing-State Votes4466
Leaning/Likely State Votes237191
Total Overall Votes281257


Swing-State Map, List & Polls –

That’s where things stand, according to data from the Real Clear Politics average of the nation’s polls, as put together by Politico.

Notice that if Romney takes Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, Obama will still get the 271 he needs to be re-elected.  If Romney wins Ohio, though, that state’s 18 electoral votes would give him 275 and the election.  You can do the math on other possible winning combinations. (E.g., Wisconsin plus any other state would win it for Romney.)  But, again, in all of those pivotal states, Obama is leading.