Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Intellectual Laziness of Polls

I have ranted about the simplistic and deceptive framing of polls during the "fiscal cliff" debate, and I think it's time to rant again in light of the debate over sequestration and ubiquitous deficit-mongering.

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press just came out with a poll on the American public's views on a number of the issues now prominent in the political scene.

In asking about the deficit, Pew gave three options: "only spending cuts," "only tax increases," or "combination of both."

Unsurprisingly, people liked spending cuts a lot more.  19% thought there should be "only spending cuts," and 54% thought "mostly spending cuts" (although the latter still sharply diverges for the current no-compromise position of the GOP).

However, the language of "tax increases" and "spending cuts" remains intellectually lazy.  Spending cuts on what?  Tax increases for whom?  Without providing specifics, Pew is engaging in generalities.

Americans tend to be ideologically conservative but operationally liberal.  In other words, Americans will criticize the government for spending too much and agree that it should "live within its means" or "tighten the belt"; however, when it comes to actually touching government programs, they immediately turn into liberals (and perhaps national security hawks as well).  Republicans play off anti-government rhetoric, demagoging small expenditures as though they made up the entire budget.

If one asked about specific tax increases and spending cuts, one would likely get a different picture.  Americans support raising taxes on the rich and on corporations.  However, the line "only tax increases" makes people think "tax increases on people like me," which is likely not the case.  Because of this, "only tax increases" might rankle their basic sense of fairness as people think that the pollster is suggesting that their taxes have to be raised because of what others have done.  The details about closing tax loopholes, as present in the House Progressive Caucus's plan, would likely be popular even if the phrase "tax increases" isn't.

A similar dissonance exists in the realm of spending as well.  In a Gallup poll from 2011, Americans opposed spending cuts to education, Social Security, Medicare, anti-poverty programs, the military and national defense, aid to farmers, and funding for the arts and sciences.  Only cuts to foreign managed to win a majority support because people will recognize that that spending is not on them or their neighbors (It's on those people)--and thus be fine with slashing it.  However, I wonder how "cut aid to farmers" polls against "cut farm subsidies" or "cut subsidies to large farms."  Likewise, I would think that some of the Progressive Caucus's defense proposals might test well--namely those that involve bringing troops home.  I think that cutting weapons programs might not poll well, though, because American like large, shiny (and clearly phallic) weapons; however, with the right language to frame the question ("outdated" "Cold War"), they might support the cuts.

Moreover, Pew's deficit question ignores the rounds of deficit reduction that have already taken place.  Between 2011 and 2012, Congress and the President enacted $1.7 trillion in spending cuts--why Obama always liked to trumpet his (clearly not liberal) success in hacking away at the discretionary budget on the campaign trail.  Likewise, the "fiscal cliff" package only brought $737 billion in new revenue.   If interviewees were shown this data and asked about a balanced deal, I wonder how they'd respond.  If they said "only spending cuts," we know that their sense of balance is hopelessly awry.

2-21-13  #4

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