Tag: polls

NSA Snooping: a Majority of Americans Believe What?

Yesterday, the Washington Post and the Pew Research Center released a joint poll that purportedly showed that “a large majority of Americans” believe the federal government should focus on “investigating possible terrorist threats even if personal privacy is compromised.”

But a careful look at the poll shows citizens are far less sanguine about surrendering their privacy rights, as the facts continue to be revealed.

Pollsters faced a difficult challenge—to accurately capture public opinion during a complex and evolving story. Recall, on Wednesday of last week, the story was about the NSA tracking Verizon phone records. So the pollsters drew up a perfectly reasonable and balanced question:

As you may know, it has been reported that the National Security Agency has been getting secret court orders to track telephone call records of MILLIONS of Americans in an effort to investigate terrorism. Would you consider this access to telephone call records an acceptable or unacceptable way for the federal government to investigate terrorism?

Fifty-six percent found this “acceptable.” Thus, the “majority of Americans” lead in the Washington Post.

However, on Thursday, the Washington Post revealed explosive details about the massive data-collection program PRISM—and the public was alerted that the NSA was not just collecting phone records, but email, Facebook, and other online records. So the pollsters quickly drew up a new question, asked starting Friday, from June 7-9:

Do you think the U.S. government should be able to monitor everyone’s email and other online activities if officials say this might prevent future terrorist attacks?

Fifty-two percent—a majority—said “no.” So Americans feel differently about the story based on the facts on Wednesday, when the story was about tracking “telephone calls,” and facts on Thursday, when the story was about monitoring all “email and other online activity.”

The Washington Post could have fairly gone with a story that a majority of Americans do not agree that the federal government should monitor everyone’s email and online communication, even if it might prevent future terrorist attacks.

Unfortunately, that’s not the story that the Washington Post went with. Subsequent media coverage of the Post-Pew poll has neglected this nuance and cemented this misinterpretation of what “majority of Americans” believe.

A more reasonable interpretation of the Post-Pew poll is that citizens’ views seem to be changing as more details are revealed about the massive extent of the NSA snooping program. Indeed, most citizens have not been following this story as closely with only 48 percent report following thing “very closely” or “fairly closely.”

I’ll be watching eagerly to see what the next polls find out about that ever elusive “majority of Americans.”

Public Prefers Education Tax Credits to Charters, Vouchers

In a recent public opinion study conducted by Harvard University researchers, education tax credits were found to attract more public support (72%) than either charter schools (62%) or vouchers (50%).

The authors seem to find this puzzling, in part due to their belief that “most economists think the difference between vouchers and tax credits more a matter of style than substance.” I have no idea whether this is an accurate assessment of economists’ opinions, but it is certainly a mistaken view, for several reasons.

First, based on a set of regression studies I reported last year in the Journal of School Choice, vouchers, but not tax credits, impose a large and highly significant extra burden of regulation on participating private schools (the link is to an essentially identical pre-publication version). In that study, I offer a suggested explanation for why this pattern may exist.

Second, tax credit programs confer freedom of choice and conscience not just on families but also on taxpayer/donors. As I argued in U.S. Supreme Court amicus briefs in ACSTO v. Winn, and a subsequent op-ed on the Winn verdict, this avoids the compulsion that has plagued state-funded school systems since their inception and has precipitated our endless “school wars.” Vouchers, by compelling all taxpayers to support every type of schooling, perpetuate that compulsion and so perpetuate the conflicts that flow from it.

To my knowledge, in the whole history of the world there hasn’t been a system of government funding for the education of children that has long avoided extensive regulatory constraints. Those constraints defeat the purpose of “school choice” programs, by homogenizing the schools from which parents are permitted to “choose.” There is evidence that tax credits, which make use of only private funds, avoid that fate. Perhaps many economists have not yet become aware of this distinction, but it is one they should take a keen interest in.

Red Team, Blue Team, and Gas Prices

The Washington Post puts public opinion on gas prices in stark red and blue:

Pretty clear Red Team/Blue Team answers. Republicans in 2006 accepted that there wasn’t much the president could do to reduce gas prices, but most of them think Obama could. Democrats show an even sharper shift; they overwhelmingly said that Bush could bring prices down, but few expect Obama to do so. I hope the fact that both Independents and Americans as a whole are 12-13 points less likely to think that presidents set gas prices is a sign of improvement in general economic understanding.

Back around 2003 or 2004 a colleague was escorted through the hallways of CNN by a junior staffer or intern, who asked him, “Do you think Bush is raising gas prices now so he can lower them before the election?” With perceptions like that among budding journalists, is there any hope for better public understanding of economics?

For examples of informed and nonpartisan analysis of gas prices, check out

Our System of Government Exists to Prevent This Kind of Thing

The Hill’s Congress Blog asks, “Will the Senate pass a health care reform bill before it adjourns for the year?”

I answer:

It’s not looking good – nor should it.

The Reid bill becomes less popular with each passing day.  (So too does President Obama’s handling of health care.)

CBS News is reporting that Reid wants to hold a vote before Christmas because he doesn’t want senators to go home and hear from their constituents.

Reid has been systematically suppressing a complete cost estimate of his bill.

Reid’s manager’s amendment will make unknown, countless, and dramatic changes to that 2,074-page bill – and Reid wants to vote on it before anyone knows what those changes are.

Even Max Baucus admits that not a single senator understands the Reid bill.

Our federalist system, the separation of powers, our bicameral national legislature, six-year terms for Senators, staggered Senate elections, and the Senate’s procedural rules all exist precisely to prevent what Reid is trying to do: ram a sweeping piece of legislation through Congress without due consideration.

What Will the Reid Bill Cost?

Michael Cannon has some astute analysis of the Senate health care bill below. I posted these thoughts at Politico’s Arena:

According to the Chamber of Commerce polls, strong majorities in every state they polled believe the health care bills will increase the deficit. In this case the public’s cynical instincts are almost certain to be more accurate than the computer models of the CBO. As David Dickson of the Washington Times reviewed yesterday, government health care programs have a history of cost overruns.

And not small overruns, like overdrawing your checking account – massive, order-of-magnitude cost overruns. Is that because politicians intentionally overstate the benefits and underestimate the costs of their proposals? Or just that computer models aren’t very good at predicting how entitlements programs change behavior? Either way, just look at the record: In 1967, the House Ways and Means Committee said the entire Medicare program would cost $12 billion in 1990. The actual cost in 1990 was $98 billion. In 1987, Congress projected that Medicaid would make special relief payments to hospitals of less than $1 billion in 1992. The actual cost, just five years after the projection, was $17 billion. Similarly, Medicare’s home care benefit was projected in 1988 to cost $4 billion in 1993, but the actual cost – again, just five years after the projection – was $10 billion.

The government is running a trillion-dollar annual deficit already, and Congress and the president propose to create a new program that promises to cover millions more people with health insurance, drag currently insured people onto government programs, and save billions of dollars in the process. No wonder levels of trust in government are at record lows.