UK paperback


Slices of life

Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Today’s Big Changes
by Mark J Penn with E Kinney Zalesne (Allen Lane)

Numbers don’t lie, do they? “The simple truth,” this book announces, “is that most of the time we can’t see the true patterns of people’s lives, except through statistics.” Hard data should be our guide to what is actually going on in society. The picture is apparently one of innumerable “Microtrends”, defined as activities pursued by at least one per cent of the population. This zingy survey offers thumbnail sketches of 75 such microtrends allegedly at work in the world today, from “Internet Marrieds” to “Women Who Date Younger Men”, “High School Moguls” and “Chinese Picassos”. Could you be part of one?

As befits the head of a large US polling company who is a close adviser to Hillary Clinton, Mark J Penn has taken an enviably efficient CEO approach to book-writing, working with not only credited co-author Zalesne but also a “senior research analyst” and an “intern”, who are thanked in the Acknowledgments for “gathering all the numbers” and “ferreting out […] arcane data”. Presumably, then, Penn himself is to be judged on what he infers from all the data ferreted out by his subordinates.

It doesn’t look good early on. I was happily cheering on the story about a new wave of left-handers, when I read the following prediction: “More lefties could mean more military innovation: Famous military leaders, from Charlemagne to Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Napoleon — as well as Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf — were left-handed.” My mind boggled, as I fantasized about conquering Asia.

Oddly for a book that sells itself on a scientific approach to social analysis, indeed, Microtrends consistently indulges in excitable waffle that is unsupported by its data. Take another alleged trend, extrapolated from a poll where one per cent of young American males said they thought that in 10 years they would most probably be working as snipers. Penn claims this as evidence of a wave of “new patriotism”, whereas the popularity of military-themed videogames seems quite a sufficient explanation. ((In fact, this is what the published poll results in question more sensibly suggest.)) Or maybe they were just joking.

Penn also displays a charmingly naive faith in his sources. A minimally sceptical reader of the chapter about an explosion of Young Knitters, for example, might note that it is based on a three-year graph supplied by, er, the “Craft Yarn Council of America”. Is it cynical to suppose that a Craft Yarn Council might have a vested interest in convincing people that knitting is on the rise? Elsewhere, Penn happily cites a claim that 70 per cent of all internet porn is downloaded during office hours. Who is telling us this? Why, “Websense, a vendor of Web security and filtering software”. Well, a firm hawking web-filtering software to businesses would say that, wouldn’t it?

In his capacity as head of a polling firm, Penn’s own product is stories — stories about trends and demographics, the more the better, and the more surprising or piquant the better. The reliability or independence of the data on which these stories are based doesn’t seem to be a primary concern. Clearly, it would be in his interest to argue that every little bump in every little survey represents a real “identity group” or nanodemographic that can be targeted for political and commercial aims.

In among the reams of tabloid-friendly dross, though, are buried a few intriguing arguments. In the political arena, Penn’s analysis of robust data from large-scale polls can be illuminating. The Latino swing to Bush in the 2004 election, for example, was entirely among Protestant Latinos and not Catholics, so the tart lesson is that “Politicians lump Latino voters together at their peril.” Meanwhile, there has been a huge increase in the number of ex-felons being released from prison every year in the US. Of course, as Penn points out, this is because many more people have been sent to prison in the first place; and yet squinting through the other end of the telescope points up a serious problem: “Unless we do something completely different to work with these newly released felons, crime will go up, and our society will change as a result.”

By far the book’s best chapter discusses the fact that “elite” media commentators increasingly discuss politics in terms of gossip and personalities. When challenged, they often claim that this is because it is how the great masses of “ordinary” voters see politics. But Penn suspects it might be for a different reason: because “today’s elites are so far removed from the mainstream concerns like health care, college affordability, job loss, and child care that most Americans face.” In other words, well-paid pundits don’t discuss the issues because the issues don’t really touch them. This hypothesis is supported by a poll showing that people who earn less than $100,000 per year are more likely to worry about the political issues, while those who earn more than $100,000 per year are more likely to concentrate on politicians’ characters instead. This time, the difference is statistically unarguable: “a 29-point swing”.

Naturally, there are implications here too for British media practice, where columnists supposedly of the “left” can moan about the plight of couples making £100,000 per year, and the front pages report politics as though it were just another format of Celebrity Big Brother. And so at the core of Microtrends is a fascinating ambivalence. Ninety-five per cent of the book is dubious, inane fluff that views people as demographic slices to be manipulated, and yet at its heart is this surprisingly humble, even dangerous admission: people are not as stupid as is often supposed.

  1. 1  Kári Tulinius  February 25, 2008, 3:12 pm 

    Mark Penn isn’t a close adviser, he’s Hillary Clinton’s Chief Strategist and probably bears the most responsibility for the shambles that her campaign is currently in, which Penn will by crying about, all the way to the bank.

  2. 2  Steven  February 25, 2008, 3:18 pm 

    Ah, thank you for that. (Although a Chief Strategist is, a fortiori, a close adviser.)

    $3.8 million? Who would bother to write books?

  3. 3  JohnM  February 25, 2008, 3:28 pm 

    Didn’t find space for it? I hope they paid you anyway.

  4. 4  judith weingarten  February 26, 2008, 6:02 pm 

    Sorry, but the left-handed Alexander the Great is a fairly modern myth. It was debunked most recently in Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain, and Cognition, Nov.2006, 566-72, where the story was traced back to

    “a 17th century Rabbinical exegesis, which said that Alexander discovered a country where all the inhabitants were left-handed. That itself may derive in part from the medieval Hebrew Book of Jossippon, which mentions Alexander talking of the superiority of the left hand and of how ‘kings stemming from the tribe of kings are left-handed.'”

    And please note, too (pages 562-65) that all ancient images of A show him to be right-handed.

  5. 5  Steven  February 27, 2008, 2:41 pm 

    Yes, but the lunatic Commodus is not such a good advertisement for us.

  6. 6  Mull  February 28, 2008, 5:56 pm 

    I see Penn is getting defensive now over his handling of the campaign so far; interview with The New York Observer here:

    and a slap around of said defence here:

    Note he does defend how much his company is getting paid; not very well cnsidering it seems to have been one of the biggest drains upon the Clintonian war-chest.

  7. 7  Jeff Hussein Strabone  February 29, 2008, 8:29 am 

    Anyone who believes in ‘hard data’ should read A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society by Mary Poovey. The book examines how numbers came to seem transparent and separate from ‘analysis’. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that the author is/was my dissertation advisor, but it is a great book nonetheless.

  8. 8  CaroleS  March 3, 2008, 5:37 pm 

    Hitler was left-handed as well.

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