Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ignore Those Polls!

Well, actually, sort of the opposite -- two great polling questions today furnished an excellent reminder of why all policy surveys should be taken with a monstrously large grain of salt.

First, one poll has 47% believing that going over the "fiscal cliff" will increase the deficit -- while in fact, the combination of tax increases and spending cuts will radically decrease the deficit.

Second, as Sarah Kliff reports, PPP invented and polled about an entirely fictional "Panetta-Burns" plan, and found that about a quarter of respondents were willing to state an opinion about it.

The point isn't that voters are stupid, which I don't believe, or even that they're just not very informed, which I do believe. The point is that most of us don't bother to develop real opinions about lots and lots of things, but yet are nevertheless willing to answer pollsters' questions.

Look, I'll give an example from something removed from politics. As regular readers know, not only am I a pretty serious baseball fan, but I write about it here all the time (and more; long ago, I published a few things in Baseball Prospectus, so yeah, I put in time and energy on this stuff). Indeed: every year I write a post about the Hall of Fame ballot, and I take those posts pretty seriously, doing enough research that I'm satisfied with the results. I've also read, thought, and argued quite a bit, about the Hall of Fame itself, and about virtually every player who comes up for a vote. And yet: since I'm still a couple of weeks away from my HOF post, I would really have to refresh my memory to see what I had decided about some of the close cases. And if I received a PPP poll asking me about the HOF ballot this year, I'm sure I would try to answer, but I also think there's a pretty good chance that I'd get one or more of the answers "wrong" -- in the sense that I'd give a different opinion than what I had written last year and will write again this year.

If that's true of me and the HOF ballot, just think how true it would be of the average voter and some issue she rarely thinks about. Of course you're going to get some goofy answers. Of course things such as question wording and other survey treatments can have a huge effect on the results.

Again: it's easy to make fun of the respondents, but that's the wrong reaction to this sort of thing. If all those people who got the fiscal cliff wrong suddenly were appointed to Congress and had to vote in committee on it tomorrow, they would bother to learn about it -- just as we all wait until we need it to learn all sorts of things in our lives.

So, you know, enjoy this stuff (and, yeah, I really wish someone asked more specifically if the tax increases and spending cuts in the fiscal cliff would increase or decrease the deficit). But just remember not to take public policy polling all that seriously. Yes, there are real opinions that we can get at with careful research, but it's very, very, easy to get junk even if you're trying to ask good questions. And not everyone is doing that.

12 comments:

  1. Yes, but.....
    If we ask people about their opinions on specific taxes and spending, we also still get back junk.
    Those opinions are often based on junk, too.

    Ask people if they would support spending cuts to foreign aid, and they'll tell you yes. They'd get rid of welfare queens, gold-plated toilets, and any number of other 'wasteful' programs. And they'd like to raise taxes on those moochers in the 47%...unaware that most of them are soldiers, seniors, and students that they don't actually want to tax.

    I'm not saying that we shouldn't ask opinions on issues or on overall plans. But we have to recognize that moving to issues doesn't solve the problem of non-opinions. On some issues, it helps. On others (foreign aid is the most obvious), it probably does no good.

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    1. I think I wasn't clear in that last paragraph: yes, I expect that if people are explicitly told that there's a "fiscal cliff" that involves tax increases and spending cuts to well-liked programs, a large proportion would say that it increases the deficit.

      In other words, what Rick says below.

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    2. Are we sure that they think so merely because they think deficits = bad? Maybe they honestly believe that the fiscal cliff will create a recession so huge that in spite of the tax increases, actual revenues will plummet, etc. and the resulting revenue decline will more than offset the spending cuts.

      The theory doesn't seem that different from http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/21/an-elite-obsession/ (though Krugman focuses more on the self-defeating nature of slashing spending than of raising taxes)

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  2. Actually, it might be interesting to dimensionalize the size of the deficit reduction from going full-bore over the cliff, and asking if people think that's worth the risks to economic growth.

    My numbers are admittedly fuzzy, but I have in mind that between the two Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cut and the sequester, you might get back about 50% of the $1 T structural deficit, leaving the going deficit at a level that is still bad, but not producing the sturm und drang associated with the current deficit trajectory.

    Is that worth the risk of a mild recession? It would be interesting to know what the people thought after this was made clear.

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  3. Doesn't that deficit poll simply bear out a point you have made (repeatedly!) before? To many if not most voters, 'the deficit' is effectively synonymous with 'bad economic stuff happens.' And calling something the Fiscal Cliff is also pretty much saying 'bad economic stuff happens.'

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  4. Answers to complicated policy questions may get a pass, even for those who need to pretend they know more than they do. But when 49% of Republicans claim that ACORN stole the 2012 election for Obama (another poll number from today), it really says something.

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    1. It surely says something. What it says, however, is a lot more difficult to figure out, and it very much shouldn't be taken at face value.

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  5. I do think this kind of stuff feeds the "I can say whatever I want, without worrying whether its true" phenomenon. And Lord knows, that problem is large and growing.

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  6. "while in fact, the combination of tax increases and spending cuts will radically decrease the deficit."

    Whether or not that is a fact is highly questionable. If the austerity bomb sent the economy into a recession, the result could actually be higher deficits at least in the short term. That is what has happened to a large number of EU countries that have adopted massive austerity in recent years.

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  7. Has anyone thought to poll journalist on what they think the “Fiscal Cliff” is?

    I’ve found the coverage of the “Fiscal Cliff” to be very confused. I suspect the journalist themselves don’t understand either the “Fiscal Cliff”, the debt limit or what the root cause of the US deficit spending is.

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  8. I agree with your point but I don't think your personal example is analogous.

    In those Hall of Fame cases where it's a close call, and you can only answer yes or no, it is natural to fluctuate between those. You might fluctuate even after doing extensive research. On the other hand, if I ask you, "Who's the better baseball player, Sheldon Adelson or Jacky Madeupname?" and you pick Jacky, then that's a bit weird.

    Although it would be reasonable if you were confusing Jacky Madeupname with Jacky Robinson. Maybe that's what happened with Panetta-Burns?

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  9. Wanted to also add that there is (at least one) important distinction between waffling on HOFers and uncertainty re the fiscal cliff: HOFer waffling is an essential part of the fun of being a fan. Policy confusion is usually just plain troubling, if perhaps also sometimes fun.

    Here's a great example: so, this year Jack Morris made a big late push to the HOF, he got 13% closer this year, and he needs about 9% more total over the next two. As we've discussed: Jack Morris - not a Hall of Famer.

    But as long as you're not preparing an argument that will be read by many folks, there's no harm in making the case for "Jack Morris, HOFer" in your mind. No harm in thinking of the 1991 WS game 7 or the three championship franchises, etc. etc. etc. Its actually quite a bit of fun to consider why Jack Morris might actually be a Hall-of-Famer, even if you have a pretty good idea that you'll eventually settle on him not meriting inclusion.

    It's also totally harmless, especially if your musings aren't public. It might also be fun to think that raising taxes (bad) raises the deficit (bad), but I suspect that latter view, if held by enough people, is a wee bit less harmless than the baseball speculation.

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