Why Would Polls Even Matter for the Bethlehem Trash Debate?

Nitpicking polling methodology is a classic tactic of people wanting to discredit results they don’t like, and this is especially true in the case of the single hauler debate where some folks seem desperate to unskew Muhlenberg’s Bethlehem city survey’s finding that a clear majority won’t mind switching to a single trash hauler. Mostly they are just exposing their own ignorance about basic statistics and social science. Poll as many more non-responders as you like – you still won’t see the 10-20 point swing you need to show a majority in opposition to Callahan’s plan. The opposition is at most 30%, and that’s being generous.

So the poll results are clear enough, but I want to argue that the poll results aren’t even important here. People have a first order preference to have their garbage carted away in a cheap and efficient way. They want their trash gone, and they want a good value. Many people also have a second order preference about how their trash should be collected, and who should collect it, but this group is obviously much smaller.

There’s no way for Council members to satisfy everybody’s second order preference, and they shouldn’t really be too concerned with that. They’re the elected representatives. Their job is to study the issue and figure out what policy will do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. There’s no reason to expect that most members of the public understand the economics of trash collection, so their opinions on the “how” question are not especially useful.

What Council members need to focus on is satisfying the first order preference. They need to ask which market design will get the trash picked up cheapest and most frequently for the most people. Most importantly, they need to ask which policy will make the city the cleanest it can be overall.

The answer to both questions is a single trash hauler. Palmer just studied a bunch of different market designs for their trash market, and they found that single hauler with automated collection is the best value.

Council members should make this decision based on what the evidence says, not what the polls say. There are plenty of popular ideas out there that are terrible economics, but just because they poll well doesn’t mean they should become law.

Nobody likes being told their opinions are wrong, and many resent the implication that politicians know better than them, but that’s just how it is. An elected representative’s job, by definition, is to know better than you and make the policy decisions based on that superior knowledge. It’s useful to know how issues poll if you’re concerned about getting reelected, but if you’re concerned about making good decisions, you have to vote for what’s best according to your own personal understanding of the issues.


  1. “Nitpicking polling methodology is a classic tactic of people wanting to discredit results they don’t like,”

    As I made clear yesterday. I support a single hauler in Bethlehem. So your comment is disingenuous. The reality is that a linguistics major has suddenly exalted himself as being an expert in statistics, when a real expert points out that the survey may very well be flawed.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Sounds to me from Bill Scheirer’s quote that he thinks it’s a pretty good survey. Nobody needs to be an expert to understand basic statistics and polling concepts.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      Do you think that a somewhat larger sample size would swing the results 20 points toward the opposition? Come on

  2. What I do think is that you’re nuts. After claiming in a blog that this proposal should be adopted bc a survey shows it has popular support, and after calling Bethlehem’s City Council President “dumb” bc he is concerned by what his constituents tell him instead of that survey, you now say that the survey does not matter. You managed to do a 180 on yourself, and in the span of two days. Congratulations.

    You have also claimed, disingenuously, that those who quibble with this study are opposed to single hauler. I happen to support the single hauler proposal, not bc of the study, but because it makes fiscal sense.

    I have said I would not bet the ranch on that survey bc 80% of the people to whom it was sent did not take the time to respond. The sample size is 5000.

    As a real expert observed, the failure to contact these nonrespondents, nearly 80% o the random sample size, could make the study flawed.

    Now go ahead and contradict yourself some more and call people stupid.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      My point was that Council members who are scared to vote for this thing shouldn’t hide behind unsupportable claims about what their constituents supposedly want. What I said was that if the city’s claims are true, and people really will save money and get better service, then the popular position should win out. If it wasn’t popular, I would still be arguing for Council to pass it.

      Eric Evans is saying that the small sample of people who have lobbied him on this issue is just as good as a larger survey. That is a remarkably stupid statement, and he deserves a big heap of ridicule for it. Any survey, even a flawed one, is more reliable than unmeasurable gut-level political intuition. A bigger sample size is always better than a smaller one.

      Also, don’t you think the people who are the most politically active, and have most loudly opposed this plan would be more likely to fill out the survey than less politically-minded people? If the survey is flawed in the way that you are suggesting, then it’s more likely overstating the size of opposition, not understating it.

  3. I also, based on the facts as they emerge, think this step is a good one for Bethlehem (I doubt there are many companies big enough to take on all of Northampton County, but that’s another story). But lets be real here–we’ probably really talking about 75 bucks or so. Why the city can’t just charge $20 for recycling is beyond me anyway.

    That said, using bad polls and polls read wrongly is more often a feature of supporting bad policies than new or “better” ones.

    Just imagine how this would look in Allentown with the sewer system. A guy could go house to house and say, “would you support a plan for taking advantage of Allentown’s water system in a way that brings cash to needed programs in Allentown while bettering the city’s ability to service pension costs?” Lots of people might say “yes” because there’s little in the question to seriously disagree with (and, to be honest, its basically “true”).

    However–once the plan comes out people could dislike the details and the concrete parts of the plan that emerge. People could see the price being too low, or the term too long, or the assumptions all wrong, or the return being insufficient for the asset leased, or the mix of short term benefit/long term cost, or they may just dislike the idea of turning a public function over to a private company for so long. Things might be “better” for the pension but only marginally so, and city residents could feel as if they are worse off. How does the poll question show us that? It doesn’t.

    Lesson of politics is–when you have a crappy plan, don’t tell anyone what your plan is.

    • Jon Geeting says:

      I don’t really disagree with any of that. I just think that, based on the details of the plan and the fact that other municipalities seem to spend less and get more than Bethlehem, there’s no problem with using the word “improved” to describe the service. I don’t think that this is a bad poll, or that the question is worded in a way that’s designed to mislead. If I didn’t like the proposed policy change, I’d be saying that “improved” is an inaccurate description. In this case it’s not. The service will improve. The only people who won’t like it are the people who want less service for less money.


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