There is a lot of wisdom in the old joke 'If 70% of people think one way what about the other 70%?'. A lot depends on (i) the current political, economic and social context in which various issues are aired, (ii) what questions you chose to ask, (iii) what questions you chose not to ask, (iv) how you ask any given question. In other words, a lot of opinion polling is down to how you pick and frame the issues. That’s not to say that such exercises lack scientific credibility or public value. Just because one might not like a result or appear surprised about some finding is not sufficient reason to dismiss such polls.
Take the finding that :
"The Government has received reports from ‘An bord Snip Nua’ and the Commission on Taxation which will influence the Budget in December. In addressing the crisis in the public finances, should the Government put more emphasis on cutting public spending or on increasing taxes?"
70% opted for cutting public spending while 14% opted for increasing taxes (and 16% had no opinion). One assumes that these were the only possible response categories. No mistaking the message there. Almost 3 out of 4 adults would prefer spending to be cut than taxes raised. Part of the reason for this response is linked to the way in which taxes means less money in my pocket and greater hardship whereas spending is something that tends to effect others more. Added to this is the widespread notion that much of public spending is wasteful and going towards over-paid public sector workers (although if you pin this one down people will exclude most teachers, nurses and civil servants that they know). And, on top of all this, most people are swamped in a very simple but crude message arriving day after day ‘We are borrowing €400m a week, we are spending way beyond our means, the money isn’t there, the economy is banjaxed, shure why wouldn’t we cut spending we have no alternative.’ Just don’t raise class size in my childrens school, don’t cut social welfare – wouldn’t be nice or fair (75% of respondents not for cutting welfare), don’t cut the arts because they are special, don’t fire health sector workers in the hospitals my family might be using, don’t tax social welfare benefits, don’t introduce third level fees for my children, don’t close the three-teacher school down the road (its fine as it is), don’t take away school transport (petrol will be raised more as people congest the roads driving children to school).
The punch line in the poll was:
"In order to reduce the public sector pay bill, should the Government put more emphasis on redundancies or on salary cuts".Well, with a question like that no wonder 58% said salary cuts and only 25% redundancies. Shure, nobody would want to deprive a school leaver or apprentice a job if a salary cut is the better option (but salary and wage cuts will not impact on unemployment - see other blog.
If the debate were to be framed differently then, perhaps, the answers would be a lot different.
For example, a poll commissioned by TASC (TASC Inequality Survey, carried out by Behaviour & Attitudes between May 1st and May 10th 2009) and published in July of this year showed that a majority of 85% of people in Ireland believe that wealth is distributed unfairly and ‘the Government should take active steps to reduce the gap between high and low earners’
Another survey commissioned by TASC in June 2008 found that the percentage of respondents willing to pay higher taxes to fund improved public services was 41% (compared to 9% in the 2003 Irish Times MRBI poll and 23% in the 2007 Irish Times TNS/MRBI)
The 2008 TASC Survey showed that ‘when broken down by social class, 50% of ABCI respondents professed themselves willing to pay higher taxes to fund improved public services - thus, those most able to afford increased taxes are also the most willing to do so.’
A number of key issues arise in regard to public perceptions and receptivity to increased taxes:
Fairness – that all sections of the community should share in the raising of taxes in proportion to their means and circumstances (there is a sense that this has not and is not the case while super-rich income earners avoid – or evade – tax)
Efficiency and Effectiveness in the way taxpayers money is spent (people are rightly cynical about waste when they witness – for example – the FAS debacle and official response to same)
Relevance to their needs and circumstances (if taxes were more clearly associated with delivery of public services so that people see where their money is going – especially at a local level where a range of public services could be funded by a combination of central government transfers and locally-raised taxes on businesses and households)
If it were possible to accelerate positive and constructive reform of the public services in a significant way by openness, transparency, accountability, local democratic control and participation by local authorities and local communities in pre-budget democratic deliberation then more people would be prepared to share an appropriate part of their income to fund key public services to the betterment of all. If they think that their hard-earned income is going to bail out banks, prop up dysfunctional public organisations and overpaid and incompetent senior executives and subsidies to those who can well afford to pay for a service is it any wonder that a majority say that they are not prepared to pay more taxes in answer to an either-or opinion poll question.
(Technical point: The claim that ‘The margin of error is plus or minus 3 per cent’ can be misleading in any opinion poll. Such polls generally use a method known as ‘Quota Sampling’ which increases the standard error on all estimates by the ‘Design Effect’. Suffice it to say that the +/- 3% margin is on the low side. Even without such a Design effect, any movements of around 1 up to 3 percentage points are hardly significant (hence recent media claims of a recovery of confidence in a given party by 3% points is very misleading).