22 September 2010

Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of silly persons

The Atlantic | Megan McArlde | What Do Americans Want?

Matthew Yglesias writes
In an excellent column, Stan Collender makes the point that it does no good to talk about cutting spending in pure numerical terms. If you don't spell out which actual things you want the government to do less of then you're not really doing anything. [...]
This is, of course, equally true on the other side: people don't want to pay more taxes for all the services they say they want, and which will indisputably require more taxes to provide. [...]

I'm not sure what this proves except that Americans have a very fuzzy conception of how the government raises and spends money, and that poll questions asked in isolation (asking people whether they support programs, without informing them about relative costs) gives you responses that aren't very useful.
(Emph. mine.)

(1) Check out the discussion on polling at the beginning of this EconTalk episode Russ Roberts did with David Brody.  He discusses a poll on health care reform in which people were asked what their income was, allowing the pollsters to estimate their tax levels.  Then they can ask questions like, "would you support program X if your taxes would be increased $Y?"

(2) Americans have a fuzzy set of ideas about a whole big heap of things. It shouldn't really surprise us that there are voters out there you think if the Pentagon just spent less on hammers and we stopped giving money to Swaziland they wouldn't have to pay any taxes at all.  Americans are very fuzzy on government revenue and spending, but what aren't they very fuzzy on?

This is why I like The Customer is Not Always Right. In addition to being one of the funniest sites I read, it also throws a ton of light on how silly and uninformed and illogical and entitled we can be. Some of the people are just being stupid. (What? Fish need to eat food?!) But a lot of them are very deeply confused about how the world works, and others display really distrubing moral judgements about what people owe them and how the world needs to conform to their ideas rather than changing their ideas to conform to facts.

It's this last that I find most disturbing: too many people expect the world to adapt to their mental model of it, rather than going through the cognitive effort of admitting their model was wrong and updating it.  If they do that with regards to routine retail transactions I can only imagine how cognitively obstinant they could be about major political or economic issues.

(BTW I pulled those links to Not Always Right only from the last week or so of their posts.  There are many more egregious ones.)


  1. I made this comment earlier today, but it seems to have disappeared.

    Basically, I think all three of you are right, but I don't think moving Yglesias' comments which were about how policy makers and pundits are the ones that are being vague about their policy proposals. Sure, the Average Joe has unclear notions of taxes, revenue, and relative costs, but I don't think that's who Yglesias was chastising.

  2. I don't see a comment on this post caught in the spam filter. No idea what happened.

    I reread Yglesias' post, and I think you're right to say that he isn't criticizing Average Joe, but politicians who promise cuts overall without specifying what they'd cut. I'm totally onboard with this. I want to know, from both pols and pundits, what they want to actually do besides eliminate "waste."

    It looks like I got off topic talking about how confused voters may be about the budget, but I think they're related issues. Politicians can only get by with vague promises to the extent that their constituents have vague notions.