Scott Sumner: There is no such thing as “public opinion”

Another brilliant Sumner essay:

I occasionally post on how intellectuals tend to misuse public opinion surveys, often to argue that the public agrees with their policy preferences. I do think there are a few questions the public is capable of responding to in a semi-coherent fashion, such as “should the death penalty be abolished.” But when you get into the area of complex economic policy, then public opinion is just gibberish—it completely depends on how you frame the question. This was triggered by a recent Ezra Klein post:

Policy hasn’t tracked public preferences very closely. In polls, Americans have clearly supported higher taxes on the rich and a much more punitive approach to banker compensation.

That’s one way of asking the question—should the filthy rich and evil bankers pay more? But what if you ask the public what they consider to be the appropriate top income tax rate?

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.

In another article I discovered:

Here’s how the numbers shake out: — 21 percent of respondents recommend a rate below 20 percent; — 17 percent recommend a rate of 20 percent; — 23 percent recommend a 25 percent rate; — 14 percent recommend a 30 percent rate; — 13 percent recommend a 35 percent rate;
— 4 percent recommend a 40 percent rate;
— no one recommends a 45 percent rate.

No one!!! Obama’s new tax bill calls for a top federal income tax rate of 43.4% in 2013, meaning the rich will face 50% tax rates in NY and California. Krugman and Saez favor still higher rates. I guess they weren’t asked.

Just to be clear, I’m not claiming the public agrees with me. I think both my survey an Ezra’s survey are nonsense.


1 thought on “Scott Sumner: There is no such thing as “public opinion”

  1. Public opinion can be ill informed. If the public lacks adequate information, it cannot express a valid opinion. If the public had adequate and accurate facts and figures, its opinions would mean something.

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