Standard polls on social welfare issues 'nearly worthless,' scholar says

September 02, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Although most Americans face hard economic realities every day -- the laws of supply and demand, the price of gasoline -- there is one part of modern life that offers "diplomatic immunity" from price tags and even the most basic economic principles.

That, according to one critic, is the world of public opinion polling, where "an economics-free Shangri-La thrives."

The critic, Robert Weissberg, argues that "with scant exception" conventional survey questions omit actual costs of proposed entitlements and "often avoid anything to do with money, let alone raising taxes." Shunning tangible costs and contexts not only opens the door to "immense mischief and misleading information," Weissberg argues in the most recent issue of The Public Interest, but it also renders the data collected from standard public opinion polling on social welfare "nearly worthless."

In his article, Weissberg identifies the various "la-la land" formats or phraseologies pollsters typically use. One popular format asks if the federal government should spend "more/the same/or less." The problem here is that what respondents consider "more" may differ greatly - "no small issue since most political disputes revolve around how much to expand government largess." The highly respected National Opinion Research Center favors the "too much," "too little" or "about the right amount" of money for federal programs phraseology - again, rarely specifying dollar amounts.

Another format uses "smallish, enticing round numbers," Weissberg wrote. A 1992 Gallup Poll, for example, asked respondents if they personally would be willing to spend $200 yearly to combat air pollution. While this format appears to be more honest, the price tag seemed to be "plucked from thin air," Weissberg noted. "If the Gallup organization had done its arithmetic, interviewees would know that this figure quadrupled the entire EPA budget while boosting the average tax rate 3.6 percent."

Weissberg, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also points out that if such polls are "murky" on financial details, they are "absolutely comatose" on non-monetary costs. Notions like externalities and substitutability -- concepts familiar to most Economics 101 students -- have been "excommunicated from the survey cosmology"; similarly, sub-optimal alternatives are "prohibited," creating "a world only of first choices unbothered by compromise and bargaining."

The consequences of such practices, which are sanctioned as scientific and therefore irrefutable, are serious, Weissberg argues. When pollsters "push aside elementary economics," they are, "engaging in a political act, a coloring of public discourse to achieve an ideological end."

Politically understood, today's polls on social welfare issues are "best likened to 'the house' in gambling," Weissberg wrote. "The advantage is built in, and all perfectly legal according to the industry's rules. The secret is banishing even the most elementary economic principles. When these are conveniently ejected, citizens really do have their Utopia, at least in the pollsters' world."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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