Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on polls and snake oil - the deficit

One of the successes of late twentieth century conservatism has been the propagation of the notion that cutting taxes would somehow boost the real income of most people and, conversely, raising taxes represents a real loss of income, instead of a shift from private consumption to (often vital) public consumption such as health care.

When debates commence about how to reduce the deficit, we find "raising taxes", which is at least well understood by most, contrasted to "cutting programs". The problem is that "programs" is an abstract, undefined term. In a survey from Nanos we find the following question:

What do you think the Government of Canada's primary focus should be to reduce the deficit? Among the options were "raising taxes" and "cutting programs"

Not surprisingly only 29% wanted to raise taxes compared to 48% who said cut programs.

In many if not most cases, the response to a polling question is determined by its wording. Suppose instead of "cutting programs", the question wording was "cutting spending on things like health care, education, and pensions" (about 31% of all federal spending, for example), the answer would be quite different.

In addition, a rapid reduction in the deficit could trigger a renewed downturn and even more unemployment. No information from the pollster of this nature. The survey reports that, unprompted, 5% did say "don't need to fight the deficit". A few do understand the stakes involved in this debate but it would be helpful if polls were not so obviously biased in one direction.

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