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I’m a strong believer the American people’s ability to understand policy clearly enough to govern themselves wisely, and an equally strong believer in viewing opinion polls skeptically. But some new Gallup findings on economic issues are so contradictory and confusing that it’s enough to make the most dedicated populist think twice.

You can see the full results here. (And Gallup says it will expand upon this exercise throughout the rest of this presidential cycle.) But here are some that are especially head-scratching:

> Of the 47 policy ideas presented to voters, only nine were judged likely to be “very effective” at improving the economy by half or more of respondents, and of these, four were so rated by 50 percent even. That’s no doubt in part a function of the large number of proposals (which would tend to fragment preferences – as we seem to be seeing for the Republican presidential field). But the diversity of popular responses strongly points to less comforting explanations.

> The only two proposals cracking the 60 percent “very effective” mark were “Ensuring that women receive equal pay for equal work” and “Improving job training for veterans.” Trailing close behind, at 58 percent, was “Giving small businesses easier access to loans to start or expand their businesses.” Nothing else exceeded 55 percent.

> The 50 percent neighborhood is where the fun really starts. Principally, budget deficit hawks will be heartened by roughly this level of enthusiasm for “Reducing federal government spending”; “Requiring a balanced budget”; and, arguably, “Reforming Social Security to ensure it remains solvent.”

> But spending doves will be just as pleased to see that roughly half of respondents saw great potential in “Spending more government money to improve U.S. schools and education”; “Providing free community college education for all Americans who want it”; and “Providing new federal government programs designed to increase manufacturing jobs.” Perhaps tipping the balance in the doves’ favor is the near-majority backing for increased public sector funding for pre-school education, more government loans for small businesses, and tax incentives to encourage business to train workers. These results also seem to signal fairly high public confidence that more educational opportunity is needed for spurring and spreading prosperity.  

> Some of the measures most prominently touted by politicians in both major parties haven’t lit raging fires under American voters, according to Gallup. “Increasing the minimum wage” was described as a “very effective” way to strengthen the economy by a solid but not spectacular 44 percent of respondents. Generating even less excitement were “Reducing income tax rates for all Americans” and “Reducing government regulations on small businesses,” which both came in at the 40 percent mark.

> However much Americans complain about the quality and quantity of their infrastructure, only 39 percent regard “Developing federal, state, and private partnerships to invest” in such systems as a great way to spur better economic performance. And for all the animus against Wall Street and the rest of Big Business, only 38 percent registered great confidence in “Setting a limit or ceiling on corporate executives’ salaries.”

> Immigration and trade issues were gauged by Gallup, too, but here the results look less reliable, thanks to some dubious wording choices. One possible reason: The polling firm received input on the entire survey from, among others, “economists, academics and economic and political observers” – groups where orthodox, establishmentarian views (of both liberal and conservative varieties) reign supreme.

> The immigration questions seemed unexceptional, and showed the public saw relatively little economic payoff from encouraging more immigration either by “high-skill” foreign nationals who graduate from American universities, by skilled workers generally, or by their low-skill counterparts. But respondents were never asked about the potential of limiting or reducing legal immigration flows, much less about cutting off illegal immigrants’ access to jobs and public benefits.

> Much more problematic were the trade questions, which gave respondents two choices: “Negotiating trade and economic agreements designed to enhance trade with other nations” and “Increasing tariffs and taxes in order to make it more expensive to import goods into the U.S. from overseas.” The former was seen as a very promising growth engine by 29 percent of respondents, the latter by 24 percent. But if you think about it, why should anyone intrinsically doubt the benefits of “enhancing trade,” especially if no drawbacks are listed? Conversely, including the word “tax” in the question suggesting trade barriers was bound to reduce this option’s popularity. What kinds of results would Gallup have gotten, for example, if its question mentioned something on the order of “Increasing tariffs to replace goods in our stores made by foreign workers with goods made by American workers”?

I’ll keep monitoring Gallup’s efforts on this score – and hope that the company does a better job framing the debate on the globalization-related hot button issues that seem to be generating an unusual number of political headlines.

By the way, it’s important to recognize that this survey doesn’t measure public backing for or opposition to these economic ideas. Instead, it measures how well the public believes these measures will or won’t improve the economy.  These questions are similar, but not identical.