Scott Sumner  

There's no such thing as public opinion, example #421

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Suppose I wanted to claim that almost all Americans favor lower taxes on the rich. How would I show this? Easy, conduct a public opinion poll asking what the highest income tax rate should be. Here's an example from 2012:

Three-quarters of likely voters believe the nation's top earners should pay lower, not higher, tax rates, according to a new poll for The Hill.

The big majority opted for a lower tax bill when asked to choose specific rates; precisely 75 percent said the right level for top earners was 30 percent or below.

The current rate for top earners is 35 percent. Only 4 percent thought it was appropriate to take 40 percent, which is approximately the level that President Obama is seeking from January 2013 onward.

Of course today the top income tax rate is 43.4% at the federal level, and over 50% in states like New York and California. Very few people favor taxes that high.

Now suppose I favored much higher taxes on the rich, how would I show that voters agree with me? Easy, conduct a public opinion poll and ask whether we should impose heavy taxes on the rich, for purposes on income redistribution:

Since 1998, Gallup has asked Americans whether they believe the government should "redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich." This year, 52 percent agreed, tying the all-time high set in 2013. While there's plenty of disagreement about who exactly counts as "rich," a bare majority of the country seems to think we should be soaking them. (I couldn't agree more.)
Notice that Slate reporter Jordan Weissmann cites the poll he agrees with, and not the one he doesn't agree with. For myself, I don't trust any poll on complex public policy issues, because the answer entirely depends on framing. Indeed it's even worse than you might think. It's not a question of finding the public's "true beliefs," as there is no such thing. Trying to find true beliefs is like trying to nail jello to the wall. You can change opinion by simply asking a question. (Insert Heisenberg Uncertainty analogy here.) Thus if you asked people if they'd rather spend $4 million executing a killer or $2 million on life imprisonment, the simple reporting of the relative costs might sway people against the death penalty, as most now assume the death penalty is cheaper. They'd learn something merely by listening to the question, and that would affect their opinion.

If you say we should ask the most basic question possible, untainted by any information that might sway opinion, then you are asking for the most ignorant views of the public. Is that what you want---pure untainted ignorance?

In any case, public opinion polls don't matter, elections and lobbying matter. The point is not to measure public opinion, the goal is to change it. Think about those conservatives who were reassured back in 1988 that only 11% of the American public supported gay marriage.

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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:

Last year, Reason-Rupe released a poll on, among other things, minimum wage (see questions 13 and 15)

They found that a 2/3rds majority supported raising the minimum wage, but when asked about associated costs (such as people losing their jobs), support fell to 40%. Context is everything

vikingvista writes:

The more priorities you ask to rank, the more "the will of the people" makes Sybil seem well-adjusted.

Sieben writes:

Isn't the relevant survey question the one that voters will actually be asked during elections then?

Obama isn't going to ask voters to evaluate: "would you like to raise the highest tax bracket to 50%". He's going to ask them "would you like to raise taxes on the richest 1% of Americans".

I agree that there's no such thing as what people *really* think. But there is a such thing as what people are really going to be asked and how they're really going to respond.

Scott Sumner writes:

Jon, Good example.

Sieben, Each party will ask the question the way that they get the answer they want. That's why the GOP talks about "death taxes", or "higher taxes on small and medium size businesses."

Obama will frame it one way, the GOP another. There is no one correct phrasing.

Voters in Massachusetts and Washington state were asked by referendum to pass a progressive state income tax. Both electorates voted no, even though both are blue states. I'll bet voters in both states would say "heavy taxes" should be put on the rich in a poll question. But they didn't vote that way.

Chris Wegener writes:

At some point the question is not what public opinion feels is the right policy for all of the points listed. As well as the fact that no policy decision is ever decided in congress by what the majority of Americans favor.

Rather we should ask what is the correct policy. Here the answer is quite clear. Lower taxes on the wealthy has not been successful for the country over the last thirty years.

A strongly progressive tax regime that encourages those with money to invest and hold those investments for the long term is clearly preferable to the current experiment that has been a dismal failure since the eighties.

Arguing about the public opinion of taxes is a benign way to avoid looking at the actual effects of the current policy.

RiCh Berger writes:


You say: "Rather we should ask what is the correct policy. Here the answer is quite clear. Lower taxes on the wealthy has not been successful for the country over the last thirty years."

Care to elaborate? Why do you make such a claim?

MikeP writes:

A strongly progressive tax regime...

I'm following you so far...

...that encourages those with money to invest and hold those investments for the long term...

...but here you lost me.

This is very much not the attitude of today's progressives who vilify the rich -- and, for the likes of Warren Buffet, themselves -- for being taxed at a lower rate on their long term investments. So, like RiCh Berger, I too think you need to elaborate quite a bit.

Then again, what you seek would be found in eliminating all income and capital taxes in favor of a strongly progressive consumption tax. In fact, I believe Scott Sumner has suggested the benefits of such a change. Is that what you have in mind?

Brandon Berg writes:

To what extent, I wonder, is the discrepancy due merely to lack of clarity over what "heavy" means? Maybe many of the respondents consider 30% to be heavy. Certainly it's heavier than what the median voter pays in federal taxes, especially if you exclude the employer share of FICA taxes, which most people don't know they pay.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

This sort of consideration also undermines "politics as puzzle palace" critiques and analysis -- i.e. "US policy fails to reflect public opinion because ...".

Despite the two-Party cartel, US political institutions still seem unusually open to public pressure, even by Western democratic standards.

A fact that is likely not incidental to US policy outcomes still generally being notably better than, say, those in the EU.

david condon writes:

The public also wants a low deficit and much greater spending than a 30% tax rate on the rich can support. I disagree that opinion polls are useless because of framing effects. Almost any social science study is going to have large potential discrepancies in outcomes due to confounding factors. That doesn't mean you should ignore the social sciences. I don't think a conservative who came out in support of gay marriage in 1988 would have much chance of holding a major public office such as senator or congressional representative very long. Who was the first openly gay Republican representative anyway?

Chris Wegener writes:

@RiCh Berger

The economic performance, particularly in reference to the bottom 80% of the population has been dismal since the 1980s. There has essentially been no increase in the median income despite the increase in the GDP as a whole. More and more of the income in the country has gone to Capital as the Labor's share of income has fallen.

This has of course lead to the large increase in income inequality which is finally receiving the attention that it needs.

As the US economy is highly dependent on consumer spending, the decrease in relative income by the majority of the population is making itself felt in the sluggish economic growth and the popular "secular stagnation."

The reduction of high marginal tax rates for conceptual reasons, i.e. they are unfair, did not unleash an economic boom but rather the explosion of deficits and the abandonment of meaningful government investment in infrastructure (other than military boondoggles) and or investment in education, particularly at the college level.


Higher marginal income rates on the upper end of income encourages reinvestment and the holding of assets rather than consumption by the very wealthy.

Marginal rates of 60 to 65% above incomes of one million dollars as well as comparable income rates for capital gains and dividend income makes it unlikely that individuals will avail themselves of that income purely for conspicuous consumption.

If we look at the period after World War two we had very consistent economic growth despite high marginal tax rates for these very reasons.

Brandon Berg writes:

Chris Wegner:
Check the BEA's national income statistics. Labor's share of net national income was 65% in 2008, two points shy of the all-time high of 67% in 1980. It's since declined to 61%, but this is likely cyclical and has already turned around. The claim that this is what's driven the increase in intranational income inequality is untenable.

The reality is that it's almost entirely been driven by two factors: An increase in non-wage compensation (mostly employer contributions to insurance and pension plans), and greater inequality in employee compensation. The slight secular shift in the capital labor split is not large enough to a major factor.

The Reagan tax reforms had little effect on total tax revenues. Every decade from the '60s to the '00s had federal revenues of 17-18% of GDP, dropping to around 16% in the current decade due to the recession rather than to any particular tax changes. The deficits have been driven by increased spending.

Your idea that high marginal tax rates promote saving is utterly bizarre. Where are you getting this idea that the wealthy blow all their money on conspicuous consumption? In general, marginal propensity to consume is inversely related to income. Note that pretty much everyone else in the left is advocating higher taxes on the rich in the grounds that they save too much.

Greg writes:

The definitive sketch on opinion polls.

A lot of people outside of the UK may not have seen Yes Minister/Yes Prime Minister and they really should change that. One of the all time great satires on modern government, inertia and vested interests (and government/the civil service as opposed to just politics). And on that note if you haven't seen The Thick of It get that, it's glorious satire (by the people who make/write Veep and actually quite a bit better than Veep).

Scott Sumner writes:

David, I didn't say all polls are useless.

I don't consider gay marriage to be a "complex public policy issue", and I cited poll numbers on that question.

Chris, Consumption is the right way to measure economic inequality, not income.

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

Greeks have elected Syriza AND suggested in polls that they want to stay in the Eurozone ...

Floccina writes:

Playing off Brandon Berg's comment, I bet that if ask people if they are too heavily taxed they would say yes and if you then asked them how much do they pay in tax that they would underestimate at least by the amount of matching payroll taxes.

I resent hidden taxes like matching payroll taxes. They make me feel like the politicians are con-men treating me like a mark.

I would like to get all voters to study tax incidence a bit.

Floccina writes:

@Chris Wegener

The reduction of high marginal tax rates for conceptual reasons, i.e. they are unfair, did not unleash an economic boom but rather the explosion of deficits and the abandonment of meaningful government investment in infrastructure (other than military boondoggles) and or investment in education, particularly at the college level.

As far as I can tell infrastructure is about 5% of Government expenditures and no one claims to be against investing more in infrastructure.
So what's up with that?
What did you have in mind? More roads, bridges, high speed internet, power lines, mass transit, airports, oil pipelines? Will the greenies stand for any of that?

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