Thursday, August 11, 2011

The dangers of poll driven politics

It has long been known that the answer to a question depends, in many cases, on the circumstances under which it is asked. Successful salesmen are always asking "yes" questions - that is, questions that virtually require the potential customer to answer "yes." Successfully framing the issue is the first and most important part of making a sale. This is why polling is more art than science. Consider, for example, this discussion of polling techniques between Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Wooley on the brilliant 80s British TV show Yes (Prime) Minister:
Sir Humphrey: "You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don't want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Do you think they respond to a challenge?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?"
Bernard Woolley: "Oh...well, I suppose I might be."
Sir Humphrey: "Yes or no?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can't say no to that. So they don't mention the first five questions and they publish the last one."
Bernard Woolley: "Is that really what they do?"
Sir Humphrey: "Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren't many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result."
Bernard Woolley: "How?"
Sir Humphrey: "Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Are you worried about the growth of armaments?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?"
Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
Sir Humphrey: "There you are, you see Bernard. The perfect balanced sample."

There have been many psychological studies which demonstrate that peer pressure can influence people to give incorrect responses on even fairly straightforward factual questions.

Which is why this kind of thing is so concerning.
A CNN/ORC International Poll released Wednesday also indicates that the public doesn't want the super committee to propose major changes to Social Security and Medicare or increase taxes on middle class and lower-income Americans.

Well, of course it doesn't. In a vacuum, of course people don't want to increase taxes on the middle class. In a vacuum, of course people don't want to cut Social Security, because of the millions of people currently dependent on it. In a vacuum, of course people don't want to cut Medicare, because of the millions of people currently dependent on it.

But none of those is really the question, is it? My response to someone that posted this yesterday on facebook, with the comment that, "OK Leaders, there are your orders. Get 'er done!" was, "You understand that you can't actually fix the problem that way, right? You understand that even confiscatory taxes on the wealthy and deep cuts in all discretionary budgets won't even close the current deficit, never mind the projected deficits that the rising costs of entitlements create?"

FBF: The position that politicians should somehow ignore the public and do as some see as "the right thing" seems pretty idealistic.

Me: I agree that it's unlikely that they'll "ignore the public." But some of them will - some always do. The key thing is that this is a Republic, not a Democracy, so they're elected to defend the Constitution and represent our interests, even when that's not what we want. (Obviously, most of the time that's not what happens. "Representing our enlightened best interests" and "pandering to the popular will" never been, are not now, and never will be synonymous. Sometimes, the latter looks like the former, and everything's spiffy.

But right now, we're caught in a trap that our elected representatives have built over the years. Every time the government creates an "entitlement," it also creates a client cohort dependent upon it. Every program that the government funds will have voters receiving those funds. Eventually you reach a point where the math just doesn't work anymore, where, in Margaret Thatcher's memorable phrase, "you run out of other people's money." If the public says "don't raise tax rates on anyone other than the rich AND don't cut Social Security AND don't cut Medicare" - well, guess what? That simply doesn't work as public policy, and the public's got to be educated and enlightened or imperiled.

Or ignored.

I'm not suggesting ignoring, because the will of the people matters. But if the will of the people is for an unachievable combination of programs that can't be sustained, the will of the people is going to be thwarted, one way or another. Right now, the people can't have all of what they say they want, and the longer we go before that's made clear and the problem is addressed, the more painful the eventual reality is going to be.

If you ask people what they're looking for in a car, you'll get a long list, including things like safety, style, fuel economy, price, acceleration, towing capability, loading capabilities and the like. But people seem to understand that they can't have all of them. There are trade-offs to be made. If you want spectacular fuel efficiency, you're not going to be able to tow your boat to the lake. If you want a lower price, you're not going to have a super sports-car.

There are trade-offs that have to be made at the national level, too. If we want a cradle-to-grave welfare system, guess what? It has to be paid for. And there's not enough money in the pockets of the "rich" to pay for it all. So poll results like the above CNN poll are not useful. They're not helpful. They offer a bunch of a la carte options that people can't actually simultaneously get. They present "or" choices as "ands." You can have a cradle-to-grave welfare state which provides all things for all people OR you can have low middle class tax rates and economic freedom. One or the other. Not both. The math doesn't work.

One of the reasons that approval ratings are so low for politicians right now is that the government has built a power-structure which rewards short-term thinking and behavior that damages the country. But another reason is that we, as a society, have been told for the last forty-plus years that we can have everything. We can have food, housing, clothing, education, retirement, all at someone else's expense.

The real world doesn't work that way. And the bill's coming due...

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