Saturday, April 19, 2014

Opinion on Abortion, 1977-2014

Thomas Edsall had a strange piece in the New York Times recently.  It starts with a good question--why the difference in the trajectories of same-sex marriage as abortion as political issues?  Same-marriage came onto the scene in the mid-1990s as a result of court decisions.  For the first ten years or so, it was a winning issue for conservatives, but then things started to swing around.  Now support for same-sex marriage is becoming the mainstream position, and many conservatives seem to be giving up the fight.  Abortion, of course, has been a contentious issue for more than 40 years.

Edsall gave figures showing  substantial change in public opinion on premarital sex and women's careers and concluded that "with all of their demographic problems, the question is, how much can Republicans afford to fool around with this particular kind of political dynamite? [ie, restricting abortion]."  What makes his article strange is that he doesn't give any figures on public opinion about abortion except for some peripheral issues, even though there have been many questions over the years.

In order to give a summary of public opinion on abortion, I picked a question that has been asked by Gallup since the 1970s:  "Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?"  The first time it was asked (1977), 22% chose "legal under any circumstances," 19% chose "illegal," and 55% chose "certain circumstances."  The last time (January 2014), the numbers were 27% legal, 20% illegal, and 51% under certain circumstances.  For what happened in between, see the figure, which gives the difference between percent choosing legal and percent choosing illegal.



Basically, nothing has happened.  There are ups and downs, some of which are too big to be explained by sampling variations, but they have very little pattern.  They might reflect short-term reactions to particular events, or the mysterious variation that sometimes occurs among different surveys.  So hard-line opposition to abortion is not "political dynamite," any more than it was in the 1970s.  It repels some voters, but appeals to an almost equally large number.  

[Data from iPoll, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hating welfare less

In 2002, a Pew survey asked people, "On balance, do you think the current welfare system changes things for the better by helping people who are unable to support themselves  or  changes things for the worse by making able-bodied people too dependent on government?"  34% said it changed things for the better, 57% said for the worse, and 8% volunteered that it did some of both.

In 1994, a Times-Mirror poll asked the same question and found 12% said better, 73% worse, and 9% volunteered that it did some of both.  Although opinions were still predominantly negative in 2002, they were a lot less negative than they had been just eight years earlier.

Why?  The welfare reform of 1996 was popular and well publicized, so maybe that caused the shift towards more favorable views.  Still, my feeling is that a single piece of legislation, especially one that most people have no direct experience with, is unlikely to make that much difference.  There seems to have been a strong conservative/anti-government mood in 1994, for reasons that aren't clear to me, and probably the very negative views of welfare reflect that (see my post on food stamps).  Unfortunately, the question has not been asked since 2002.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, April 5, 2014

I'm not prejudiced, but....

Writing in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, Jill Lepore noted that polls now show that people overwhelmingly say yes when asked if they would vote for a qualified woman for president.  She adds, "But the question requires respondents to self-report on the kind of thing, like church attendance, that they tend to overstate. In 2005, Gallup asked a different question: Do you think most of your neighbors would vote for a woman for President? Thirty-four per cent said no."  From the context, it seems that she is interpreting the answers about what "your neighbors" would do as a more accurate measure of real opinions.

Is this a reasonable interpretation?  I did a cross-tabulation of gender by ideology by answers to two questions, one about what you would do, the other about your neighbors (each question was asked to a randomly selected half of the sample).  The numbers below are the percent saying "yes":

                        You        Neighbors            
Conservative men         88%          61%                    
Conservative women       72%          55%                    
Moderate men             93%          77%                    
Moderate women           90%          66%                  
Liberal men              94%          67%                    
Liberal women            98%          67%                  

Answers about whether you would vote for a women have a strong relation to self-described ideology, especially among women.  Opinions about what your neighbors would do have a weaker relationship.  In fact, moderates are more likely to say that their neighbors would support a woman for president than liberals are.

If you think that the answers to the question about neighbors is a more accurate measure of true beliefs, you have to conclude that a lot of liberal women would not vote for a woman for president, which seems very unlikely.  The more plausible interpretation is that people are answering the question about neighbors in a straightforward way, and people generally think that they are less prejudiced than most other people.

[Note:  data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Monday, March 31, 2014

America and the World

An article in the New York Times a few days ago said "a December Pew poll revealed the lowest level of public support for an active American foreign policy since 1964."  It didn't give an exact citation, but it looks like this is the source.  The exact item is agreement or disagreement with the following:   "The U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." The summary is a little misleading:  it should say that he question was first asked in 1964 and 2013 was the highest level of agreement ever found (1964 was the lowest).  

 In searching for these data I came across another question on the same general issue that has been asked as far back as 1946, originally by Gallup and later by several other organizations: "Do you think it would be best for the future of this country if we take an active part in world affairs, or if we stay out of world affairs?" Answers are summarized in the following figure:


The basic pattern seems to be that support for an active role was higher in the 1950s and 1960s and has been at a lower level since then.  It has bounced back a few times:  in 1991, when the Soviet Union was starting to break up, and for several years after 9/11.  The Pew question suggests more of a real trend away from support for international involvement in the last 10 year or so--this question has ups and downs without much pattern.  It seems to me that the questions are asking pretty much the same thing, but maybe people interpret them differently.  Or maybe it's related to the exact times that each question was asked.  

[Note:  data from iPOLL, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Underpaid or overpaid?

In 1994, a Roper Reports survey listed a number of occupations, and for each one asked if "people in that occupation are generally overpaid, or underpaid, or paid about right for what they do?"  Here they are, arranged from regarded as most overpaid to regarded as most underpaid:

Celebrities and entertainers                    +86
Professional athletes                           +85
Lawyers                                         +81
Presidents of major business corporations       +74
US Senators and Congressmen                     +65
Doctors                                         +63
TV news anchor people                           +57
Senior level managers in the federal government +53
Investment bankers                              +51
Middle level managers in the federal government +38

Military officers                                -2
Long-distance truck drivers                     -37
Nurses                                          -40
Skilled factory workers                         -45
Policemen                                       -51
Public school teachers                          -58
Secretaries                                     -61
Restaurant workers                              -80


The numbers are the difference between the percent saying overpaid and the percent saying underpaid.  For example, 87% say celebrities and entertainers are overpaid, and one percent say they are underpaid, for a score of 87-1=86. The basic pattern is that people say occupations with high pay are overpaid and occupations with low or moderate pay are underpaid.  But that raises a question of why investment bankers, a famously well-paid occupation, don't rank higher.

Perhaps it's because with most of the high-paying occupations that they asked about, there is an obvious zero-sum element: people figure that if they made less, prices or taxes could be lower, or ordinary workers in their companies would get paid better. But investment bankers don't directly sell anything to the public, so people don't see who would gain if they got paid less. If this is correct, it may help to explain why the rise in top incomes over the last few decades hasn't caused much public reaction. High salaries in finance, which has contributed a lot to the rise in inequality, just seem to appear, rather than to be gained at anyone's expense.

Note:  data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research

Friday, March 14, 2014

Americans and Envy

In the New York Times, Arthur Brooks says:  "The 2006 World Values Survey, for example, found that Americans are only a third as likely as British or French people to feel strongly that 'hard work doesn’t generally bring success; it’s more a matter of luck and connections.' This faith that success flows from effort has built America’s reputation as a remarkably unenvious society."

There are a couple of problems with this statement.  First, it's misleading.  The item he refers to asks people for their position on a 10-point scale with "In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life" at one end and the statement Brooks quoted at the other.  It's true that the British and French respondents were three times as likely as Americans to take the "luck and connections" extreme, but that's 6% to Americans' 2%.  Americans are more towards the "hard work usually brings a better life" end, but rank only 15th out of 54 countries.  The countries that most strongly believe in hard work are neither economic powerhouses nor liberal democracies:  the top four are Egypt, Ghana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Iran.  So the United States is not "remarkable" in terms of opinions on this question, but that's probably a good thing.

The second and more serious problem is that the question isn't a measure of envy, even roughly.  Brooks opens with a quote from the singer Bono, who said "In the United States ... you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, one day, I’m going to get that bastard.”  That sums up the usual definition of envy pretty well.   Ordinary self-interest implies that taking from the rich is good if the proceeds go to you, egalitarianism implies that taking from the rich is good if the proceeds go to the poor, but envy implies that it's good even if nobody gains.

None of the comparative surveys that I know of have a question that could plausibly be regarded as a direct measure of envy.  However, the International Social Survey Programme included two questions that, taken together, seem to get at it.  One is "do you think people with high incomes should pay a larger share of their income in taxes than those with low incomes, the same share, or a smaller share?"  The other asks about the statement "The government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed," with answers of "strongly agree," "agree," "disagree," and "strongly disagree."  My thought is that envy is represented the combination of agreement that people with higher incomes should pay higher tax rates and disagreement that the government should provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed:  that is, wanting to make the rich worse off but not caring about making the poor better off.  While this isn't totally watertight, I think it's a good first approximation.

High numbers represent "conservative" positions:  that the government shouldn't provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed and that the rich shouldn't pay taxes at a higher rate.  The United States is conservative on both.  High envy would be represented by positions in the upper left:  the rich should pay more, but the government shouldn't provide for the unemployed.   But there are no nations that show that combination.  Instead, there's a line that includes the US, Britain, Italy, France, Japan, and several others.  Then there are some below that line, representing relatively weak support for progressive taxes and strong support for providing a decent standard of living for the unemployed.  Denmark (DK) is an example:  support for progressive taxes is only slightly stronger than in the US, but support for the idea of a decent standard of living for the unemployed is much stronger.

Those are the countries that could reasonably be called "unenvious":  people think that there should be help for the unemployed, but that the responsibility to pay for that should be spread widely.  The honors go to Denmark, Estonia, the Philippines, Cyprus, and Israel.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Envy and other deadly sins

Writing in the New York Times recently, Arthur Brooks says that calls for the redistribution of income are motivated by envy.  I hope to have a more serious post on this idea in the near future, but in honor of Lent I'll write about a 2012 survey sponsored by CBS News, 60 Minutes, and Vanity Fair that asked "Which ONE of the seven deadly sins do you feel the most susceptible to- Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, or Pride?"  Pride was the "winner," with 36%, followed by gluttony at 15%, lust (11%), Envy (10%), Greed (7%), Sloth (6%), and wrath (4%).  11% said don't know or didn't answer--I don't know if that's because they didn't think they were susceptible to any or because they couldn't decide among the contenders.  There was little or no association between answers to this question and vote in the 2008 election or views of the Tea Party.  However, there was an association with self-rated political views.  The pattern differed depending on whether you used the sampling weights, so I'll just mention the differences that showed up both ways:  Liberals were more likely to say they were prone to gluttony, people who rated themselves as either very liberal or very conservative were less prone to envy,  and people were rated themselves as very conservative were more prone to pride.