The first thing you learn in social science research is that people are not rocks. Well, not exactly. You learn that the manner in which you study people can greatly affect what you observe in people, much more so than with rocks. For example, results from a poll can be strongly influenced by the way questions are asked. Siena Research Institute’s recent poll questions on dealing with New York’s State’s prospective budget deficit is a case in point (you can see the entire poll HERE).
What stuck in my craw particularly is question 15:
Experts are forecasting that the state has a 4 billion dollar deficit in the fiscal year that begins April 1, 2008. Which choice, either cutting spending or increasing taxes
would you most prefer the Governor and Legislature make? (ROTATE CHOICES): cut spending or increase taxes?
Can you guess where these ultra-global choices led? 82% said cut spending, 13% said raise taxes, and 5% didn’t indicate either choice.
Well, duh. Until we specify which programs to cut or which taxes to raise, the question simply asks people to jerk one knee or the other.
Question 16 appears to clarify the tax confusion, but really doesn’t:
If the Governor and Legislature choose to raise taxes to close the deficit, which one tax do you think would be best to raise – (ROTATE CHOICES): income tax, sales tax, or business tax?
Income tax came in at 10%; Sales tax was 27%; Business tax was 53%, and don’t know/no opinion was 10%. Now these results may imply something. What might be inferred (assuming most respondents feel less personally affected by raising business taxes) is that the burden ought to be borne either by somebody else — or more particularly, the burden ought to be borne by people with greater ability to pay.
Just saying “income taxes” not only means next to nothing, it is politically insidious. For twenty years, New York State has been subject to bouts of “tax cut fever.” The proponents, who have come from both parties, postured as benefactors to the masses as they promised to”cut taxes.”
They meant state income taxes, which probably are the least burdensome for the middle class. To make up the difference, property taxes rose in the wake of state income tax cuts. The latter taxes do create burdens. In the meantime, the benefits of state income tax cuts, like the federal equivalents of the past seven years, accrued mostly to the wealthier taxpayers.
Siena could just as well have said “your” income taxes, because that appears to be the implication of questions 15 and 16. However, what if they had worded the question with just this modicum of sohpistication:
What if the entire deficit could be closed by 1% to 3% surcharges on incomes above $200,000? Would you support or oppose this?