Thursday, April 29, 2010

Foolish Figures

Some polls are useful to those interested in following changes in public opinion trends. They also can tell politicians what the public “thinks” on a specific issue if the gulf between the “fors” and the “againsts” is wide enough.

But, many poll questions are downright silly. One such was included in a survey last week. A Washington Post-ABC News Poll asked 1,000 randomly chosen Americans whether they approved or disapproved of federal regulation of derivatives trading by bankers. The results: 43 percent favored regulation, 41 percent opposed regulation, and 17 percent had no opinion.

I will wager any amount with anyone foolish enough to take me up on it that at least 99 percent of the respondents had no idea what a derivative is. I would set the ignorance bar at 100 percent, but there was a slight chance an investment banker wound up in the poll sample.

At least, the 17 percent who confessed to having no opinion were honest about their knowledge level. I’ve attended two lengthy seminars where experts carefully did their best to explain what the term “derivative” means in financial circles. After absorbing a lot of information on the subject, I must confess I am unable to write a concise definition of “derivative.” The concept is that complicated.

This ridiculous poll question, however, illustrates an important point about federal regulation of financial institutions, and the larger question of the proper role of government in our society.

We little guys are helpless without protection by our government institutions in complex matters beyond our control, and sometimes well beyond our comprehension. When we are not protected by sound regulations formulated by our representatives, bad things like the personal financial, property value, and job losses experienced by many in the “Great Recession” will be our lot as the predators in society feed upon us.

Expecting financiers to police financing mechanisms in the public interest is as ludicrous as expecting garden variety criminals to fine and jail themselves. And voting “for” or “against” regulation of something one does not understand is not a whole lot smarter.

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