A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll (Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2011, page A5) asked Americans about what they believe should be done to fix the federal budget. Large majorities (76-77%) in both parties believe it is unacceptable to make major cuts in entitlement programs and K-12 education, but smaller majorities (51-57%) believe that it is acceptable to cut federal assistance to states, the EPA’s budget and nuclear power plant subsidies. For those questions, only 1-3% of people answered “not sure” (detailed document here). Most people were “sure”. But, were the “sure” people’s opinions based on understanding the question’s context?
How many people who expressed an opinion in the WSJ poll knew, for example, (i) the size of the 2011 federal budget, (ii) how much federal nuclear power subsidies cost taxpayers and (iii) what damage (or benefit), if any, accrues to our economy or society at large from that spending? Ditto for spending on the EPA, spending on K-12 education or medicare. What if an unbiased cost-benefit analysis showed that nuclear power subsidies or medicare amounts to the single least (or most) effective spending in the entire federal government? What about medicare spending in the context of defending the American standard of living? Good, bad or indifferent?
It is a fair bet that less than less than 1% of people who answered the WSJ poll about federal nuclear power subsidies, EPA spending, K-12 spending or maybe even social security understand the real (unspun) cost-benefit of the spending that they claim to like or dislike. Nonetheless, they have opinions. Asking for fiscal restraint based on understanding the cost-benefit makes sense. Asking for restraint based on ignorance is a crap shoot. It could help, hurt or be neutral.
Pollsters ask Americans all kinds of questions about all kinds of complex topics all the time. The topics are usually shrouded in sophisticated spin by sophisticated interests on all sides. What if the WSJ poll had asked those same questions twice, once with no context and once with meaningful cost-benefit context, i.e., how much cost, what benefit? That would probably give us significant shifts in some or all of the WSJ poll results.
If that is true, do polls like this help or hurt public discourse? Does that help or hurt America? What is the value of polls like that when politicians use misinformed public opinion to guide their all-important quest for re-election? When politicians pander to uninformed public opinion to set policy, do we win or not?