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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Polls vs. Pols

Yesterday’s online National Journal reports on their new poll. Their headline reads:

“Poll Shows Public Opposes Sequestration”

“Sequestration” means the automatic cuts resulting from the committee’s inability to reach an agreement. Here is their summary of the poll results:

“Opposition to proceeding with the automatic cuts was widespread in the poll. They were opposed by three-fifths of whites, and nearly two-thirds of minorities; at least 57 percent of every age group; and 58 percent of independents, 66 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans. The only exception to the pattern: Whites with at least a four-year college degree split almost evenly on whether the cuts should go through.”

And here is the National Journal’s polling question that yielded the poll results:

“As you may know, if the super committee does not meet its deficit reduction target by the deadline, Congress has set rules requiring large automatic cuts on defense and domestic programs. If the committee fails to meet its target, do you think these automatic cuts should go into effect or that Congress should take action to stop them?”

This question is misleading. The “automatic cuts” cannot by any stretch of a non-Washingtonian imagination be described as “large” or as “cuts”. But somewhere over 99% of Americans who are not members of Congress naturally assume the “large spending cuts” are large cuts from current spending levels. In fact, the total annual automatic cuts are small and only reduce the increases in annual spending. They do not reduce total annual spending – total annual spending increases every year. Ask an uninformed public a misleading question and what do you get: misleading poll results. The problem, of course, is that however flawed the polls are, they carry a lot of political weight that can be thrown around come election time by those who seek to exploit the public’s ignorance about the national fiscal crisis.

What is to be done? We need a new poll. We need a new poll that is not misleading - a new poll that gives the American people candid, realistic choices and in so doing guides the politicians to act in a manner that reflects informed public opinion. Absent informed public opinion, the 2012 election will be decided by debates about the wrong issues. The winners will have a mandate to address the wrong problems.

What fiscal choices do you suggest the new poll should offer? Here are mine, but undoubtedly you can recommend better ones by using this blog’s Comment feature.

“As you may know, the super committee did not meet its deficit reduction target by the deadline. Which of the following steps should Congress take to address the federal government’s financial crisis?

(1) Continue to increase both federal spending and the national debt each year in hopes that (a) the US economy will improve each year so that tax revenues will increase but (b) interest rates will remain at the current unusually low levels. If interest rates return to normal levels, the interest payments on the national debt will increase from the current 10% of tax revenues to 25% - 30% of tax revenues. If you choose (1) and if interest rates return to normal levels, the interest payments on the national debt will be larger than all Social Security payments, larger than all Medicare payments, larger than defense spending and larger than all other federal spending combined by 2021.

(2) Reduce current federal spending in the years 2013 and 2014 by 3% - 5% to get to a balanced budget in 2014. In 2015 – 2017, reduce federal spending by 2% - 3% to generate budget surpluses and apply the surpluses to reductions in the national debt. If tax revenues are lower and/or interest rates are higher than those expected by the Congressional Budget Office, the spending cuts will have to be larger.”

The spending cuts I have used in (2) are higher percentages than those in the Gradual Plan.

If there is anyone who thinks (2) above is as or more misleading than the National Journal’s poll question, please offer a Comment. How can we improve (1) and (2)? It is not easy to craft poll questions that are viewed as “non-misleading” and “fair and balanced” by all sides. Perhaps we should have two elections in 2012. The first election would decide the poll questions. The second election will choose the “winners”. I write “winners” because unless informed voters choose the winners, the winners will not be in office for very long. We will lurch election after election from one party to the other. Today far too many voters are clueless about the nation’s fiscal problems. Until the polls provide the voters with sound questions and realistic choices, most pols will choose and frame the issues for self-benefit. An uninformed electorate allows the politicians to choose and frame the issues and then chooses the most persuasive answers to the wrong questions. That is how we have come to where we are. It does not have to be this way.

So, which national news organization will step up and conduct the new poll?

If none, which national group will do so?

If none, is there not one American billionaire or multi-millionaire who will fund the new poll?

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