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A few weeks ago, Larry Bartels presented a new paper here arguing that governments around the world spend less than their citizens want.  Most of his evidence comes from the international ISSP survey, which asks:

Listed below are various areas of government spending.  Please show whether you would like to see more or less government spending in each area.  Remember that if you say "much more," it might require a tax increase to pay for it.
The U.S.-based GSS reaches similar results with almost exactly the same wording:

Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please indicate whether you would like to see more or less government spending in each area. Remember that if you say "much more," it might require a tax increase to pay for it.
I think this wording is seriously biased.  After all, it (a) suggests that moderate spending increases don't require higher taxes; and (b) fails to mention that spending cuts would reduce taxes.  If you reworded the question in a sensible way, support for government spending would fall.

But how precisely should you reword it?  "Remember that taxes are a monotonically increasing function of spending" is ridiculous.  "Remember that the more the government spends, the more is has to tax, and the less it spends, the more it can cut taxes" seems OK, but it's still too wordy.

Can anyone do better?  If so, please share.


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COMMENTS (26 to date)
Dan writes:

Remember that spending and taxes are related.

Remember that increased spending requires taxes, and decreased spending can reduce taxes.

I think most people are smart enough that a gentle reminder will make them aware of the dynamic.

Jesse writes:

Would you prefer higher spending with higher taxes, no change, or lower spending with lower taxes?

phineas writes:

Remember spending requires taxation.

Joshua Macy writes:

Please show whether you would like pay more or less taxes to see more or less government spending in each area.

Josh Lyle writes:

I like Jesse's options, but I would also consider a five option version in which you could also choose to increase or decrease spending in a given area compensated by decreases or increases in spending in other areas.

scott clark writes:

"Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please show whether you would like to see more or less government spending in each area. Remember that if you say "more," it might require a tax increase or spending cut in some other area to pay for it, if you say "less" it might be accompanied by lower taxes or it may allow spending increases in some other area."

That wording sounds pretty fair to me, but it might make it harder to figure out what the results are actually telling you.

Eric H writes:

Hmm...let me give this a shot.

Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please show whether you would like to see more or less government spending in each area. Remember that if you say "more," it will likely be used as a justification for a tax increase to pay for it, even though raising taxes could actually decrease revenue through discouraging growth. Also remember that if you say less, we will use that money to increase the funding of other programs or to create new programs that are far more sinister, and will eventually require an increase in taxes.

That's pretty wordy and brutally honest. Guess the original wording worked pretty well after all.

hutch writes:

I think Joshua's version is best. Reminding people that higher spending means higher taxes won't affect the outcome of the survey if he or she won't be the one to pay the taxes. What percentage of those in the US don't pay taxes at all? If your sample is representative, you should come back with a very high proportion of those favoring higher spending if you simply say that higher spending means higher taxes.

Isaac K. writes:

The thing is, a reduction in spending isn't always accompanied by a reduction in taxes, especially given the current climate.

Changing tax law and reducing government income is a VERY difficult thing to accomplish legislatively. Tax "refunds" are different because they don't change the government's revenue directly - they are part of the government's spending.

As a worker in government budget, I think that the original statement is probably as accurate as you could get, since the reduction in spending by the government WON'T encourge it to reduce taxes, at least not for a while.

And, given the deficit we presently find ourselves in, it could be quite a few years. [theoretically]

Reginald Musgrave writes:

Do you believe that armed thugs should steal more from you and your neighbors to be able to give more to the people described below who have no rightful claim to the money?

Dan Weber writes:

Lots of people don't care about higher taxes, because they aren't the ones paying the taxes.

Caliban Darklock writes:

I'd use:

"Bear in mind that government spending is primarily, but not entirely, financed by taxes."

This should effectively communicate that changes in spending do not necessarily mean corresponding changes in taxes, but such changes are still likely.

MattYoung writes:

Would you rather buy a truck from a government factory with taxes or a private company with a loan?

Mark A. writes:

"Remember that increased spending might require borrowing money from foreign investors who won't have to be repaid until you're dead."

EconNewbie writes:

"Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please indicate whether you would like to see more or less tax dollars spent in each area."

Then perhaps they should add to the survey; "How fair do you think your tax rate is?" or "How much of your income, savings, etc. do you think should be taxed?"

Speaking of government spending, is there a source that could tell me the administrative cost of any given government program? I'm curious.

RL writes:

Which of the following government programs would you like to spend more tax dollars on? Which would you like to see eliminated or cut back to allow a tax cut?

shayne writes:

How about an alternative - skip the survey altogether and just add lines to the 1040 ...

Above is your tax obligation of: $xxx,xxx.00

Below, indicate your preference (by percentage) of how you would like your elected representatives to spend your tax obligation, by category...


Maybe followed by a line stating, If you indicate less than 100% of your tax obligation in total, the balance will be refunded to you.

Now that's democracy and social science research rolled into one.

Steve Roth writes:

What Jesse said, but more specific.

8/25 NYT/CBS poll asked, for instance:

"Is it more important to provide health care coverage for all Americans or hold down taxes?"

If each issue was framed that way, it could provide a revealing data set.

Oh and by the way, in that poll 67% of Americans chose universal coverage. I guess when they have to choose between death and taxes, they choose taxes.

(Yeah, I know, glib and specious, but irresistible.)

http://www.nytimes.com/ref/washington/20080825-poll-graphic.html

SLS writes:

Why not three conditional answers? Easy enough to have three columns to check off.

Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please indicate whether you would like to see more or less government spending in each area, if any increases are paid for
(a) by raising or lowering your taxes in the same proportion
or
(b) by raising taxes on people wealthier than you
or
(c) by cutting spending elswhere

While it leaves the disposition of cuts unclear the reader should be clear on the connection in that direction too.

John Fast writes:

"For each area, indicate whether you would like the government to spend more, if it has to raise taxes to do so; or to spend less, if it also cuts taxes by that amount."

And, shayne, I love your proposal. It's been suggested at least twice before, by Fred Pohl (in his story "The Problem Pit," although people who wanted to use the option had to pay a 10% surtax,) and by Jack C. Haldeman II, God rest his gentle soul.

Haldeman's brother is Joe Haldeman, who is an anarcho-capitalist.

Lawrence writes:

Remember, it's your money.

Horatio writes:

Several posters already nailed it.

"Would you contribute more money in taxes to fund x?"

I believe most people would realize that the marginal value of government is less than 1. People who support more government usually want other people to pay for it.

Mark A. writes:

So I realize that my previous comment may appear somewhat specious, but it was offered in a serious spirit. This is how most people view spending increases: government spending is a magic pool of money that comes from nowhere and has no downside. That sounds irrational, until you realize that it's very close to being true (just close enough to be dangerous). It's not difficult for the federal and state governments to borrow truly enormous sums of money and defer the pain.

It may even seem rational to continue borrowing ever-increasing sums of money if you expect the economy to always grow. It's no big deal to borrow from your future children if you know they will be much wealthier than you. So is government spending the next bubble?

At any rate, as applied to the question actually asked, it's very difficult to phrase a question that accurately captures all the nuance of the various options. The borrowing option cannot be ignored -- and actual government and voter behavior suggests it is the favored option.

DanT writes:

Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please show whether you would like to see more or less government spending in each area.

Current government spending is in deficit, which is when spending exceeds revenues; and the government has a debt, which is a total monetary obligation to pay.

Saying "much more" or "more" increases the deficit and debt, "neither" continues to increase the debt, "less" will reduce the deficit but may not reduce the debt, and "much less" will reduce the deficit and likely reduce the debt.

Remember any choice which does not reduce the deficit and the debt will require a tax increase to pay for it.

[But that's just biased the other way.]

shayne writes:

John Fast:

Thanks for the 'kudo' and the references to Pohl and the Haldeman brothers. I'll look into their work.

Actually, I'm surprised it has only been suggested twice before. And I'd be happy with a 10% surcharge caveat.

I suppose this same idea has occurred to some folks before, but they dismissed it, passing it off as a political impossibility. Just as I used to think it would be a political impossibility to publicly borrow, and then transfer a large sum of money, say $700 Billion, into the hands of a single unelected individual, for distribution at the sole discretion of that unelected individual.

Jeremy writes:

I prefer a more firm link between spending and taxation. Therefore:

Listed below are various areas of government spending. Please indicate whether you would like to see more or less government spending in each area. Remember that governments must tax to pay for what they spend.

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