What you Focus on Expands: Lousy Data Collection Proves Nothing

It isn’t simply right-brain holistic woo-woo Tony Robbins-loving people that can channel energy into a result.

REALTORS can do it.

HOA’s can do it.

As proof in the new Que, Economists can do it, too.

Take a look at this photo.

If you have access to a pen and pencil (it doesn’t work well on an iPad), scratch out one of these for yourself.

Take a length of twine, maybe 18″ long and tie a lightweight metal washer to it. Prop your elbow up on a table and suspend the washer over the crossed lines in the middle of the diagram, and feel free to use your fingers to stabilize it for a moment. Then focus on only the washer.

Start thinking in your mind:

1. 3. 1. 3. 1. 3.

What just happened?

Now tell the washer “stop. Stop. Stop.”

Mmhmmm…

Now start thinking in your mind, focusing on the washer, “2. 4. 2. 4. 2. 4.”

Now tell the washer “stop. Stop. Stop.”

Tell it to go “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4…” Tell it to go in reverse.

It obeys. Brain energy can move the washer. Four year olds can do this. What you focus on expands.

I say all of this because an issue of economic concern has arisen in Colorado Springs: A Public Perception of Renewable Energy. The results of the survey were just published in Southern Colorado Economic Forum’s Que, Volume 8, No 4, 2010, and it concludes: people don’t want renewable energy and won’t pay for it. Upon closer examination, I question their findings under the same premise as a washer, some twine and a numeric pie sketch: what you focus on expands. The demographic sought to answer these questions was overwhelmingly older (almost half over 60) and overwhelmingly wealthy (just under 70% made more than $125,000.

Here is a graphic that shows the age breakdown: “The greatest proportion of responses were obtained from people who are over 60 (60-64, 24.6% and 65 or older 21.8%). Young adults were not part of the target audience. Homeowners were targeted.”

Young adults are not homeowners? Why did the tax credit work? What is especially amazing is the disconnect between “homeowners” and “homebuyers”. According to the National Association of REALTORS Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, only 17% of all buyers in 2008 through 2009 (latest data that is available) were older than 55 years old. But 46.4% of the respondents were over 60 for this survey… AND… considered the proper target audience? As far as who owns a home, perhaps the better question about whether or not people will pay for renewable energy are people thinking about paying for a home: in other words, not homeowners, but homebuyers.

In 2008/09, the same number of people 18 to 24 bought homes as were 65 to 74 (6%). In fact, 62% of all buyers were under 44, with one in three (34%) 25 to 34. In the Que’s Renewable Energy study, one in four respondents was born between 1945 and 1950. These people were definitely likely homeowners; but they were not likely homebuyers. Correspondingly, they can form answers in a theoretical bubble: they probably won’t be impacted by the answers like a majority of a population whose answers went unsolicited.

Yet what did the survey want to know? Questions that effect homebuyers just as much (if not more) than homeowners.

  • Are wind farms aesthetic?
  • Would you buy a house with solar panels?
  • Would you pay a premium for a house with solar panels?
  • Would you install renewable energy on your home?

These are all questions that are valid of an audience or segment that:

  1. is planning on buying a home in the next 3 to 5 years
  2. might need to buy a home in the next 5 to 10 years
  3. is concerned about resource use for the next 30 to 50 years and
  4. would be an end-user benefactor/opponent of such resources/expenses

My problem with this might come across as intolerant, youthfully naive, even punkish. I can live that. But 60 years and older with a household income of over $125,000 at least needs to be defended as the target audience for something as audacious and planning intensive as renewable energy use. Would not a far better demographic  have been the individuals that at least would theoretically pay for it, not even willingly, but as utility subscribers of the future?

We are two decades away from a society that claims half the energy use from non-fossil fuels… at the earliest. That 46% of the audience over 60 years old is very likely concerned with their daily expenses, and rightly so. Ask their opinion of any municipal infrastructure improvement, and you will probably see a pattern of answers at least somewhat similar to how they answered about renewable energy. Almost 70% of the respondents made more than $125,000 a year (69.6%), clearly a number that does not match at all with the voting demographic patterns of El Paso County. Similarly, it does not represent the majority of homebuyers, nor does it represent even the majority of homeowners. Here is a breakdown of home income among buyers in 2008/09:

So to see that only 43.6% would “maybe” pay a premium for renewable energy and 34.5% said that they would not… well… let’s consider the audience. These same individuals statistically speaking probably would not favor increased taxes: they have more to lose. They probably would be less likely to approve school construction expenditures: they don’t have elementary or secondary-aged children.

The survey makes a statement that says “a naive expectation suggested well-educated, high-income homeowners would be willing to pay more for renewable energy.” Anyone with any insight into human behaviors, even Freakeconomics-lovers, understands the fallacy of that statement. There is a big difference between well-educated, high income homeowners that are over 60 and those that are under 50, and especially those that are under 40. Are their fewer high-income, high-educated homeowners under 40 than above 60? Yes. But if the defense of the question being asked is really “does renewable energy improve public perceptions about property and property values”… don’t ask a homeowner. Ask a buyer. In this case, the 92% of the audience (93% in the West) that was younger than 65. Perhaps the answers would be the same. Nothing says they must be different. But to isolate the audience as neatly as this survey leaves a lot of the validity of the answers, and how well they truly represent public opinion, in question.

Afterall… what you focus on, expands.

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