It’s Projection, Stupid: The Nexus of Agricultural Protectionism, Job Insecurity, and PoliticsApr 4th, 2012 | By James Ahrens
Megumi Naoi and Ikuo Kume
International Organization. 2011.
When you hear that someone’s lost a job to globalization, do you feel sympathy or do you get scared?
That’s the critical question from a paper by political scientists Megumi Naoi and Ikuo Kume published in the October 2011 issue of International Organization.
Naoi and Kume want to know why voters in wealthy nations stand for high agricultural prices that follow from protectionism. The classic collective action story – that agricultural producers are better organized than consumers and more acutely incentivized to action given the scale of their potential losses – doesn’t cut it.
In a March 2009 Pew Research poll, 47 percent of Americans expressed a negative view of proposed reductions in farm subsidies. Naoi and Kume report that popular support for agricultural subsidies is even higher across Europe and Japan. While the collective action problem exists, it tells us nothing of the origin of these numbers.
Shortly after the global financial crisis in December 2008, Naoi and Kume conducted an online survey of 1,200 Japanese respondents between the ages of 20 and 65. Participants were divided into three groups: a “producer-priming” group, a “consumer-priming” group, and a control group. Before answering any questions, respondents in the priming groups were shown some photographs. The former were shown a white-collar office, a car factory, and a rice field, while the latter were shown a supermarket, an electronics store, and a clothing store. The idea here was to get the respondents to think of themselves as either producers or consumers. Enforcement questions followed to buttress the effect.
Respondents were then asked a series of questions that gauged their attitudes towards agricultural imports, as well as imports in general. Two things stood out. First, across all groups the percentage of protectionist responses for agricultural imports was approximately double that of general imports. Second, the producer-priming group opposed food imports by (a statistically significant) nine percent more than the control group.
What’s happening? Naoi and Kume see it cutting one of two ways: either respondents felt sympathy for farmers or they were, in the authors’ words, projecting “their own job security onto a symbolic declining industry.”
It turns out to be the latter. Naoi and Kume regress support for agricultural protectionism on variables aggregating responses to questions drawing out both phenomena. They find robust support for the projection hypothesis and minimal support for the sympathy hypothesis.
The authors discover, for example, that “[a]mong respondents who report that finding a comparable job is ‘difficult’ or ‘very difficult,’ the producer priming increases their support for agricultural protectionism by 14.4 percentage points…”
What should we make of all this? Naoi and Kume have a few suggestions. First, don’t try to draw a straight line from occupational interests to trade policy preferences; it’s not that simple. And second, this stuff is great for politicians and talking heads.
“More specifically,” the authors write, “our findings suggest that even subtle manipulation to draw citizens’ attention to one aspect of their lives can substantially change the landscape of coalitions in the global economy.”