Straws in the wind?

中国日报网 2012-09-21 13:41



Straws in the wind?

Reader question:

What does “toss straws in the wind” means in the following sentence?

If a government is to have any value, it should lead the country where knowledge and understanding take it, not toss straws in the wind to find out which drifts farthest.

My comments:

The answer is blowing in the wind, as Bob Dylan sings.

Literally, the answer is in the wind.

Straws are light, loose ends of, say, dried wheat stems. If you toss them in the wind, they’ll blow away – wherever the wind takes them.

This is a situation hardly imaginable by kids in the city, but if you have any experience in the country, you’ll know tossing straws in the wind is just another folksy way to see where wind is blowing. Farmer’s wisdom, that is. An American idiom, straws in the wind apparently alludes to this age-old practice by farmers everywhere.

Politically, however, if you toss straws in the wind, you want to see what voters want. In America, for instance, public opinion polls are often called straw polls, i.e. surveys which metaphorically speaking toss straws in the wind to see to which direction voters lean – toward either Democrats or Republicans.

In our example from the top, the government in question is criticized for failing to have an opinion of its own (because of a great lack of wisdom, which, in fact, is not uncommon in any government around the world). All it does is to conduct straw polls to find out what the voting trends are and then follow voters’ direction.

Actually, no government follows voters’ lead. No, not really. Politicians don’t much care what voters want per se. They just want to get voted in. That’s how it is in a democracy these days. Once elected, they swiftly forget what voters want – until, say four years later in America, the next election comes round.

The Democrats and Republicans in America by the way are not very different. Both parties cater to the interests of the ultra rich, who pay for their election campaigns. However, the Democrats, this time led by incumbent President Barack Obama, tend to give a semblance of care for the working class, i.e. the so-called middle class and lower. For this semblance, such as it is, I hope Obama wins again. For a change, you want someone from the minority to run the show on the big stage. He’s still black, isn’t he?

Anyways, if you toss straws in the wind, you see which way the wind is blowing. In politics, you are trying to see where the political wind is blowing.

In countries that don’t have elections, well, you are forgiven for being even less enlightened than voters are in a democracy, who truth be told, leave much to be desired in terms of political consciousness, too. But that’s neither here nor there. At least we know what the phrase “straws in the wind” means politically.

At least you know now.

Alright, here are media examples:

1. We have long known that immigrants have higher birth rates than natives of the United States, as my colleague Steve Camarota documented in a CIS Backgrounder a few years ago, but now there are some straws in the wind suggesting that they may also be more likely to marry than natives of the United States.

One reason for this is that marriage is a large – probably much too large – part of the immigration admissions formula in the United States. Of the million or so legal immigrants each year, fully 300,000 arrive as a direct result of marriage to a U.S. resident. I am not talking about the arrival of married couples as immigrants — that is an additional number. What is described here are the 300,000 new immigrants a year (on average) who are newly married to, or about to be married to, 300,000 U.S. residents.

- Straws in the Wind Suggest Immigrants Marry More than Natives,, September 7, 2012.

2. David Cameron’s dream of elected mayors in Britain's major cities looks to be in tatters after the idea was rejected in referendums.

Manchester, Nottingham and Coventry have voted No, and there are signs that Birmingham and others have also dismissed the plan.

The results are embarrassing for the Prime Minister, who had thrown his weight firmly behind the changes in a series of speeches and interviews.

Mr Cameron had attempted to use the example of London Mayor Boris Johnson, saying he wanted a “Boris in every city”.

However, critics argued that the proposals were unnecessary and would add another expensive layer of bureaucracy....

Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington Jack Dromey admitted the city’s voters were likely to have rejected an elected mayor.

“The straws in the wind are that it is likely to be a No vote, but we will see,” he said.

- 'No' votes leave Cameron's mayor plans in tatters,, May 4, 2012.

3. THE Financial Times and the Sunday Times are the newspapers that probably have their fingers closest to the pulse of middle-class savers. So it was interesting to see that the personal finance pages of both periodicals went for similar stories over the weekend. The FT money pages had an “inflation special” with a headline “Millions hit by inflation: pensioners face sharp drop in spending power” while the Sunday Times had a double-page spread on “Where to go to beat inflation”. Whatever your forecast on the likely future inflation rate, it is clear that inflation has hurt pensioners in the past. Living 30 years beyond retirement is not an unreasonable expectation these days (while not the average life expectancy, a cautious person might want to plan for such an outcome). Any Briton who retired in 1981 and bought a fixed rate annuity would have seen the real value of their income fall by two-thirds by now; and that is with a long period of disinflation in the 1980s and 1990s. A rational retiree might expect an outcome that is at least as bad over the next 30 years.

There is the option of buying an inflation-linked annuity but that, the FT reports, requires the retiree to take an initial income 40% lower than that for a fixed rate deal. It is a big gamble to take when early death means that survivors lose all the capital.

The political challenge is whether the Bank of England’s failure to meet the inflation target in the last two years undermines the consensus that handed it power over monetary policy. So the column by David Smith, the politically mainstream economics editor of the Sunday Times, was very interesting. He described the Bank’s arguments about slack in the economy as a “figleaf”.

There has been plenty of slack in the economy over the past four years but inflation has been high.

The Bank, with the government’s backing, has tolerated high inflation to prevent great short-term damage to growth. That is fine, but it should be open and honest about that, rather than dress up all its decisions in terms of spare capacity and medium-term inflation. And whether this strategy is the right one for the economy in the longer term, I very much doubt.

Talking of straws in the wind, the purchasing managers’ indices for the euro-zone, released today, were weaker-than-expected. Whether that will concentrate the minds of the European leaders discussing the rescue plan is doubtful. The betting at the moment seems to be on the insurance scheme, a way of making the EFSF’s resources go further without immediately calling on European governments to stump up more cash or relying on the ECB. But it looks, once again, like a technically clever plan that will not deal with the underlying problem; that southern European countries cannot raise debt at reasonable interest rates on the markets without the promise of subsidies from their northern European partners.

- Buttonwood’s Notebook: Inflation and private investors,, October 24, 2011.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


If not this year, then next

Off and on?

Moral fiber

Always on the outside looking in?

Rubbing it in

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:Helen)


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