Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More Uncommon Sense: Investments, Polling, and Car Seats

At first glance, it may not seem like infrastructure investments, cell phones, infant carriers, and political polling have anything in common. However, it occurred to us today that these objects all share a common thread.

Most popular innovations, once they've been introduced to the public, often seem obvious in hindsight - as though they should have always been around in that same form.

For example, we now have infant car seats that are really just a buckled-in base that a portable infant carrier snaps into. It makes perfect sense: for years, parents and grandparents removed the infant from the car seat in the vehicle, then put them in the carrier, then picked up the carrier and toted the baby to the next location. Why not skip the hardest part of the procedure - moving the squirming (or sleeping) youngster from one carrying mechanism to another? Carriers that also snap into stroller frames - or even full-size strollers - are another logical extension of this idea, now that the click-and-go concept is so common.

In its own way, political polling metaphorically seems to be stuck in an outdated infant carrier from the 1980s.

Political polling has always relied on the participation of random American citizens willing to answer questions from a stranger on their phones. As Nate Silver has been pointing out in his five-part series at fivethirtyeight.com, the fact that some modern political polling may be missing an ever-increasing number of young, progressive, and Democratic-leaning voters is attributable to a whole host of reasons beyond the control of political pollsters.

No one reason is bigger than the cell phone, as Nate explains. When one-quarter of American households are eliminated from most polls before the pollster even hits the phone bank - and those Americans are predominately younger and more progressive - the results are likely to be skewed, at least some. When reading Nate's series, it's easy to see the potential for media organizations to make faulty assumptions about electoral outcomes. The polls have always worked very well before, so why aren't they working quite as well now?

In a similar way, Ezra Klein, over at the Washington Post points out that - from a fiscal standpoint - there has rarely been a better time for Americans to invest in their own infrastructure needs. Labor & supply costs are insanely low, and there is a huge supply of construction labor, ready and willing to go to work. For much of the last forty years, however, Americans have neglected the costs of delaying infrastructure repair, as though it didn't actually cost any money to put off until after the next election what should have been done years ago.

The question isn't whether systems like how we choose to allot our public tax money to pay for infrastructure - or how we handle our political polling - need to be innovated. It's as obvious as a child carrier from twenty years ago that we need to innovate now.

The question is, can we find the will to actually follow through, innovate, and improve those systems now? We're betting that, once these innovations are in place, things will be better - and there'll likely be a lot less squirming and crying too.

After all, it worked for the kid carrier, right?

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