Mark Dolliver’s Takes: Mixed Blessings

If you’re going to market an unhealthy product, better make sure it is notoriously unhealthy. In a Rasmussen Reports survey conducted after the Supreme Court overturned a $79.5 million award from Philip Morris USA to the widow of a smoker, 70 percent of adults said the cigarette companies “should not be held liable for the health problems of those who smoke.” This attitude flows logically from another of the poll’s findings: 91 percent of respondents believe that smokers “are aware of the health dangers involved with the practice.” We can surmise that Americans would be more inclined to think companies should be sued for all they’re worth if their products are harmful but not quite so obviously harmful. By this logic, fast-food companies ought to embrace rather than resist proposals that they disclose the less salubrious aspects of their products. It might help them fend off the tort lawyers.

Has hybrid momentum stalled? A poll by BIGresearch asked potential car buyers to say which sorts of vehicles they are considering. Five percent pointed to the hybrid, down from 9 percent last February. Fifty-four percent said they’re considering a conventional car, 33 percent an SUV, 19 percent a truck, 15 percent a crossover vehicle and 9 percent a minivan. (The poll accepted multiple answers.) A report earlier this year by J.D. Power and Associates found compact cars claiming more of the automotive market in 2006, presumably helped along by gas prices. But the shift to compacts was not as dramatic as you might guess. In 2005, compacts accounted for 27.9 percent of new-vehicle sales. Last year, they accounted for 31.2 percent—just slightly more than large vehicles (28.5 percent) and less than midsize models (40.4 percent).

The official poverty level for a family of four is a little more than $20,000 a year. The unofficial poverty rate—the one Americans have in their heads, with respect to their own localities—is considerably higher. In a Gallup survey on the subject, 28 percent of respondents said they think it would take at least $60,000 a year for a family of four to “get by” where they live—including 14 percent who think it would take at least $75,000. The median figure from the survey’s responses works out to $45,000. Among suburbanites, the median is $50,000. Naturally, the figure in nominal dollars is higher now than it was in polls conducted in 1987 ($18,200) and 1967 ($5,304). But it’s also much higher even when you calculate in inflation-adjusted dollars. Measuring in constant 2007 dollars, the median figure was around $32,000 in both 1987 and 1967. Evidently Americans have adopted a more expansive notion of life’s necessities during the past 20 years.

No wonder automotive commercials are annoying. The typical spot shows a vehicle gliding along the S curves of a road on which there’s not another vehicle in sight. This could hardly be more distant from the real-life experience of many viewers. In a new Harris Poll, 37 percent of adults said traffic congestion is a “serious problem” where they live, while 39 percent rated it a “moderate problem.” It takes more than bad traffic to drive commuters out of their cars, though. Among people who travel to their jobs, 79 percent drive themselves there. Another 6 percent go as part of a car pool. A grand total of 6 percent take public transportation, which helps explain why there’s a limited constituency in most of the country for mass-transit projects. A lucky 6 percent can walk to work, and 1 percent go by bicycle. The poll found little support for a “congestion tax” to dissuade people from driving into certain high-traffic areas. Just 22 percent of all respondents said they favor such a measure, while 66 percent oppose it.

Surveys often find Americans satisfied, if not ecstatic, with their jobs. A report from the Conference Board, though, documents a downward trajectory in job satisfaction, “with little to suggest a significant reversal in attitudes anytime soon.” Fewer than half of workers report being satisfied with their current job, vs. six in 10 a couple decades ago. The figure is lowest among newcomers to the labor force, with just 39 percent of workers under age 25 saying they’re satisfied. The figure was above average (at 52 percent), though still not particularly high, for workers who make more than $50,000 a year. Up to a point, job satisfaction tends to rise with the number of hours worked. Beyond 60 hour per week, however, satisfaction falls, as well it might. Respondents voiced least satisfaction with the bonus plans and promotion policies where they work. They were most satisfied with their commute, their co-workers and “interest in their work.”

If it weren’t for teenage moviegoers, Hollywood would be a ghost town. Polling by Weekly Reader Research finds teens living up to their reputation as movie-theater habitués (see chart below). There were some gender disparities, though. Among 13-18-year-olds, girls were more likely than boys to say they go to the movies less than once per month (32 percent vs. 25 percent); boys were more likely than girls to say they go once a week (18 percent vs. 10 percent). When asked who accompanied them the last time they went to the movies, 10 percent of the boys said they went alone, as did 3 percent of the girls. Predictably, teenagers were most likely to have seen their most recent movie with friends (58 percent). But they were more likely to have gone with their parents (22 percent) or siblings (20 percent) than with a boyfriend/ girlfriend (11 percent). The survey does not divulge whether they were embarrassed to be seen at the movies with their kinfolk. Girls were more likely than boys to say they went with a boyfriend/girlfriend (14 percent vs. 9 percent). Do teens go to movies merely for lack of something better to do? The findings suggest otherwise. Asked how much they like going to see a movie at a theater, 60 percent said, “I love it.” Most of the rest (34 percent) said they “like it,” with few saying they “don’t like it” (3 percent) or “hate it” (3 percent). There was little gender gap on this question.