Earlier this week, Politico came out with a poll of the public's thoughts on the ongoing austerity debates. Unsurprisingly (but perhaps surprisingly to some within the Beltway echo chamber), raising taxes on households earning more than $250,000 received strong majority support (60-38). An even greater majority supported raising taxes on major corporations (64-33), which runs completely counter to the bipartisan consensus that corporate tax rates have to go down. Although Romney's plutocratic leanings are well-known, Obama also proposed lowering corporate taxes during the campaign season and, specifically, during the second debate. Clearly, neither candidate got the memo that the public was not on their side, but that, of course, could have been said for a number of issues.
However, what I found particularly interesting about the Politico poll was what it revealed about the power of framing policies and I will focus on three in particular.
(1) Proposal: "Reducing Medicare benefits for seniors with high incomes": 51% support -- 46% oppose
The key phrase in this proposal is "high incomes." How high of an income are we discussing here? If we reduced Medicare benefits for people making over $1 million (not even 1% of the population), we would hardly save any money. For means testing to actually accomplish anything toward deficit reduction, then the threshold has to be pushed much lower. If the proposal read "Reduce Medicare benefits for seniors with incomes over $77,000 (roughly the top quartile), it would likely be much less popular. The question succeeds on a lack of specificity.
(2) Proposal: "Making significant cuts to the Defense Department budget" 38% support -- 59% oppose
As the definition of "high incomes" was essential to understanding the last proposal (and conveniently evaded), the meaning of "significant" adds the same subjectivity. Speaking of "significant" cuts implies that one would be reducing the effectiveness of an organization; it connotes an "extreme" or "drastic" solution, neither of which have pleasant connotations.
However, what if the proposal were phrased in one of the following ways?
(a) "Reducing waste and fraud in the Pentagon."
(b) "Ending Cold War weapons programs"
(c) "Bringing our troops back from Afghanistan"
(d) "Reducing the number of military bases abroad"
I'm sure that all of these--especially (a)--would poll better because their key message is "efficient operations," something universally popular.
(3) Proposal: "Cutting government spending across the board" 75% support -- 23% oppose
This proposal reeks of the hollow rhetoric of "balance" that both parties love to use when speaking of budgetary issues. "Everybody tightens their belt a little," this one says. It seems "fair," right? "Equal treatment before the budget axe."
However, let's look at this question a different way. What if we offered this equivalent proposal?
"Making cuts to education, food safety, environmental protection, national parks, scientific research, and aid to children, the poor, and the disabled"
Doesn't sound quite so "fair" anymore, does it?
People often view the government in the abstract, not realizing the valuable ways it supports their daily lives. If you want to understand people's values, you have to give them actual programs to contemplate, not generalities