How Do Americans Really Feel about Trade?

As it turns out, it’s pretty difficult to tell! Much, apparently, depends on how the question is phrased.

Today, the Washington Post reports findings from the latest Pew Global Attitude Project report, which was released yesterday. The Pew study finds that 59% of Americans have a positive view of trade, while 36% have a negative view. The results differ to some extent by demographic characteristics like age, income, and political party affiliation. Pew found that 64% of Republicans believe “the impact of trade on our country is good.”

That figure differs vastly from the result of the WSJ/NBC poll (about which I wrote yesterday), which found that 59% of Republicans believe that foreign trade has been bad. What explains these nearly diametrically opposite conclusions? A very significant factor appears to be the question phraseology.

In the WSJ/NBC poll, the respondent was asked to identify the statement that came closer to his/her point of view.

Statement A: “Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers.” (32% of Republicans agree)

Statement B: “Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced U.S. demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products.” (59% of Republicans agree)

In the Pew poll, the respondent was asked the following question:

What do you think about the growing trade and business ties between the
United States and other countries — do you think it is a very good thing, somewhat good, somewhat bad or a very bad thing for our country?

Pew tallied the “very good” and “somewhat good” responses and found they represented 59% of total respondents, and 64% of Republican respondents.

What does this all mean? It means that respondents provide answers to questions as asked, and that it is the data interpreters who give too much meaning to the responses elicited by their questions. Neither the Pew question nor the WSJ/NBC question probes peoples’ comprehensive views about trade (and it is evident to me, as I wrote yesterday, that the phrasing of the WSJ/NBC questions biased the results). Nevertheless, the written summary of the results of each poll would have the reader believe that each poll is dispositive of the issue.

That the question phraseology appears to be a determinant of the answer suggests that a better way to discern Americans’ views about trade would be to ask a multitude of questions — including redundant questions phrased differently.

Two figures that appear to be credible from the Pew report are a bit disconcerting. The same question asked of Americans was also asked of citizens in 46 other countries. Positive views of trade were lowest in the United States. And the 59% holding positive views constitutes a huge drop off from 2002, when the same question from Pew found 78% of Americans holding positive views on trade.

Thus, while it appears that Americans are souring on trade, it is hard to tell how many Americans are how sour.

Romney’s Tax Plan

There are at least three approaches to tax policy a candidate may take in an election campaign:

  1. Use the tax code to offer limited giveaways that do nothing to improve the economy, but offers small benefits to the maximum number of voters. This is the Obama approach.
  2. Pursue major tax reforms combined with downsizing the government. This is the Ron Paul approach. Paul notes on his campaign website: “True tax reform is as simple as cutting or eliminating taxes” and “the real enemy of tax reform is the spending culture in Washington … we will never have tax reform in this country until Congress changes its spending habits.”
  3. Call for tax cuts that will spur economic growth and benefit all taxpayers. This is the Mitt Romney approach, as we will discuss here.

The Romney campaign released a “blueprint” on tax policy yesterday. The blueprint is just seven short bullet points, but they are all excellent points. Here they are in brief with my comments.

  1. Make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Great. Extending the income tax rate cuts and the dividend and capital gains tax cuts is important. But I’d swap the Bush child tax credits for further supply-side tax cuts.
  2. Make additional cuts to individual income tax rates. Great. That would improve economic efficiency and growth. I’d take this further and collapse the current rates into a flat rate or a two-rate structure
  3. Enact a zero tax rate on interest, dividends, and capital gains for those in the middle class. That’s a move in the right direction, but better to eliminate double-taxation on all savings. 
  4. Eliminate the estate tax. A no-brainer. The current estate tax damages growth, probably doesn’t raise any money, and enriches tax lawyers.
  5. Cut the corporate tax rate. Another no-brainer. The average corporate income tax rate in Europe is 24 percent. The average federal plus state rate here is 40 percent.
  6. Oppose Social Security tax increases. Romney’s right: tax increases won’t solve the problems with Social Security, as explained here.
  7. Make individual medical expenses deductible. A move in the right direction to equalize the tax treatment of individual and business health expenses.

All in all, candidate Romney has outlined a very pro-growth tax agenda. His plan contains numerous supply-side provisions that would increase economic efficiency and raise incomes. Kudos for proposing reforms that would benefit all Americans and resisting the impulse to craft useless tax giveaways, which is the approach of candidiate Obama.

Now if we could combine the Romney supply-side approach with the Paul downsizing approach, we would really be getting somewhere.

Correction to Yesterday’s Post, (Lies, Damn Lies,…)

Yesterday on this blog, I posted my criticisms of a WSJ/NBC poll and a WSJ article that was based on that poll. Although I firmly stand by my central criticism that there was a clear bias in the phraseology of Question 10 that was completely unnecessary, I made a factual error in my post that I wish to correct.

In paragraph four, I assert (about the poll) that “no questions were asked about whether the respondents would agree with a Republican candidate who favors tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.” But it was subsequently brought to my attention that such a question was asked at question 7.7 of the poll. I stand corrected.

Had I not overlooked that question, I would not have criticized the author for reporting a “phantom result.” I apologize to John Harwood for the assertions and implications related to that point.

With the exception of the second and third sentences of paragraph four, the entire blog post, with the same tone and same conclusions, remains valid.

A Small Sign of Hope on Capitol Hill?

A bipartisan bill to strengthen inspectors general (the folks who monitor fraud in various agencies and departments) has swept through Congress. It even includes a provision sponsored by Congressman Tom Davis that would require IGs to report on duplicative programs.

This bill doesn’t acutally mandate the elimination of waste, fraud, and abuse, but at least it will result in more information about ways to cut back a bloated federal budget. As the old saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.

Congressional Quarterly reports (subscription required):

Democrats scored a victory Wednesday in their effort to bolster oversight of the executive branch with House passage of a bill that would give inspectors general more autonomy with the agencies they oversee. Despite a White House veto threat, the bill passed with considerable Republican support, 404-11, more than the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.

Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., speculated that Republicans were “hard-pressed to vote against an effort to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.” …Lawmakers also agreed, 274-144, to a Davis-sponsored motion to recommit the bill and amend it to require annual inspector general reports on program redundancy within federal agencies.

The idea that future administrations would be subjected to the bill’s limits was not lost on Republicans. “This is an even better bill under a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency,” said Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., referring to the Democratic senator from New York.

Norway’s Banana-Republic Shipping Industry Expropriation

The Wall Street Journal correctly castigates Norway’s socialist government for applying a huge retroactive tax hike on the shipping industry. The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that some shipper will “re-flag” its vessels in jurisdictions where politicians don’t expropriate past earnings:

It’s almost unheard of, though, for a rich, enlightened nation like Norway to deliberately undermine one of its most important industries. That’s exactly what’s expected to happen tomorrow, when Norway’s left-leaning government presents its budget to parliament. Included will be a proposal to retroactively tax shipping companies to the tune of nearly €3 billion, a move that could threaten the status of Scandinavia’s maritime superpower.

Over the past seven years, as the regime took effect, maritime employment in Norway has climbed almost 20% to about 100,000 and the number of ships on order by Norwegian fleets has risen more than threefold — keeping pace with rapid international shipping growth since the turn of the century. That boom has attracted the attention of Norway’s finance minister, Kristin Halvorsen, a member of the country’s Socialist-Left Party. Under her budget plan, all profits reinvested by the industry since 1996 would be subject to a retroactive tax.

Many ship owners are considering reflagging their vessels in nearby countries, such as the U.K. and Denmark. Moving could mitigate their future liabilities, but that will be little consolation to firms that remained in Norway over the past decade and invested in their fleets, only to be betrayed by politicians.

High-Flying Bureaucrats Rip Off Taxpayers

The New York Times reports that the Government Accountability Office found pervasive abuse of premium travel by bureaucrats. Fraud was especially rampant at the Department of Agriculture, which is doubly outrageous since the Department shouldn’t even exist:

Federal employees are routinely abusing rules on business-class travel, taking trips that cost taxpayers an estimated extra $146 million annually, Congressional investigators have found. …An Agriculture Department official, for example, spent $62,000 on 10 business-class flights to Europe to attend trade negotiations. The coach fare would have been less than $9,000. …a business-class ticket costs on average five times that of a coach ticket. The investigators found very few first-class flights, which have even stricter rules. But the study found that 65 percent of the overall premium flights, $146 million worth, broke the rules or were not appropriately authorized. …The foreign affairs agency in the State Department had one of the highest shares of questionable premium-class travel, the investigators said. Cases highlighted included a family of eight that flew business class to Eastern Europe from Washington at a cost of $46,000, as part of permanent change of assignment, a trip that auditors said should have cost $12,000. The Agriculture Department at times sent large employee groups by business class, including eight officials who went to a trade conference in Geneva on flights that cost $50,000.

Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics, and a Media Happy to Abuse Them

The Wall Street Journal reports ($) today that support for free trade is fading among Americans who are likely to vote Republican.  Perhaps that’s true.  It certainly wouldn’t be surprising given the way most Americans are misled by their political representatives and the mainstream media about how to measure trade’s impact on the economy.

But something really smells about today’s lead article in the WSJ.  The WSJ/NBC News poll upon which the article is based simply doesn’t support the author’s conclusions.  In fact, the article is misleading in ways I find inexcusable for a newspaper of that caliber.   If you weren’t already, you should be highly skeptical of polling results (at least as reported second hand).

The third paragraph in the article reads: “Six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.”  Next to that paragraph is a graphic box with a bar chart showing responses to the question: “Is foreign trade good or bad for the U.S. economy?”  The “Good” bar showed 32%; the “Bad” bar showed 59%.

Here’s the first problem.  That question (“Is foreign trade good or bad for the U.S. economy?”) was not asked in the poll.  The second problem: no questions were asked about whether the respondents would agree with a Republican candidate who favors tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.  But that didn’t stop the author from reporting that phantom result in paragraph three.

Here is a link to the subject WSJ/NBC poll.  Question 10 is the only question about trade, which gives two statements and asks the respondent to reveal which statement comes closer to his/her point of view.

Statement A: “Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers.” (32% of Republicans agree)

Statement B: “Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced U.S. demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products.” (59% of Republicans agree)

From these results, John Harwood concludes that “six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports.”

But as you can see, there is a clear bias in the manner of phrasing the questions.  You’re not agreeing that foreign trade is good or bad, but that it’s good or bad because… And respondents are more likely to be familiar with one of the offered consequences of trade.  Certainly, the issue of “potentially unsafe products” is fresh on our minds, thus respondents are basically escorted to that answer.

What bugs me most about this is that the competing statements: foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy vs. foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy would have been perfectly objective phraseology.  Why introduce subjective perspectives?

That a professional polling agency would introduce such obvious bias into its polls and a major newspaper would ignore the obvious problems with the results is troubling.  For all we know, Ron Paul and Mike Gravel are the leading candidates for their respective parties’ nominations.

CORRECTION: The poll did ask about a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulation. See here.