Monday, June 27, 2011

Taxing the rich

I often notice a survey question asked many years ago and wish that they'd repeat it.  It's a lot less often that I find a case in which an old question was repeated after a long lapse.  I did today:

People feel differently about how far a government should go. Here is a phrase which some people believe in and some don't. Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich? 

35%  54%  11%   (Roper/Fortune, March 1939)
45%  51%   4%   (Gallup, April 1998)
49%  47%   4%   (Gallup, April 2007)
51%  43%   5%   (Gallup, April 2008)
46%  50%   4%   (Gallup, Oct 2008)
50%  46%   4%   (Gallup/USA Today, March 2009)
47%  49%   4%   (Gallup, April 2011)

The sampling procedures were different in the late 1930s than they are today, so I'm not sure whether there's really been an increase in support for heavy taxes on the rich.  But there certainly hasn't been a decline.  It's also interesting that the figures for October 2008, March 2009, and April 2011 are essentially the same.  From following the news, you'd think the public mood had changed a lot over that time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Growing libertarianism?

Nate Silver's Five Thirty Eight blog had a post a couple of days ago entitled "Poll finds a shift towards more libertarian views."  His measure of libertarianism involved two questions, one about whether "the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses," the other about whether "the government should promote traditional values" or "not favor any particular set of values."  Both of them are meaningful questions, but I don't think that either gets at the heart of the libertarian position, which I would summarize as saying that nothing should ever override individual rights.  Some things that have a direct relatioon to core libertarian principles are opposition to mandatory seat belt laws and mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists.  Neither is a big issue in mainstream politics, but there have been a few questions.

Seat belts:

Would you favor or oppose a law that would fine a person $25 if he did not wear a seat belt while riding in an automobile?  (Gallup)

                 Favor                   Oppose
1973:           25%                    71%
1977:           17%                    76%
1977:           17%                    78%
1982:           19%                    77%
1985:           35%                    59%
1988:           54%                    43%

Many states have primary seat belt laws that allow police officers at stop a driver solely for not wearing a seat belt. In other states, with secondary laws police must have some other reason to stop a vehicle before citing an occupant for failure to buckle up. Which type of seat belt law do you support--primary or secondary? (Public Attitude Monitor 1996)
Primary  44%   Secondary 45% Neither (vol) 8%

Of course, not all of the opposition in 1973 reflected libertarian principles.  Most of it was probably just "we've never done that before, why start now"?  And the 1996 question is quite different.  But the 8% is of interest as an indicator of the number of committed libertarians.

Some states have laws that require motorcyclists to wear helmets. Studies show that the use of helmets greatly reduces deaths and serious injuries among motorcyclists. On the other hand, some people are opposed to helmet laws because they claim such laws limit a person's right to choose what they do. What is your opinion? Do you strongly support, moderately support, moderately oppose, or strongly oppose motorcycle helmet laws? (Public Attitude Monitor)

1990:  strongly favor 76%   favor 14%     5% moderately oppose    3% strongly oppose
1996:  strongly favor 64%   favor 20%     7% moderately oppose    6% strongly oppose

Some people believe that motorcycle helmets should be required because they reduce deaths and serious injuries. Others oppose helmet laws because they limit a person's right to choose what they do. Because of these different viewpoints, state laws on motorcycle helmets differ.... Do you think all motorcyclists should be required to wear a helmet when riding a motorcycle?  (Public Attitude Monitor)

2001:  Yes 79%    No  20%

The 1996 figures add up to 110, not 100 (if people who don't know are counted), so the reported totals must have mistakenly added 10 to one of the first two categories.  Either way, there was some weakening of support for mandatory helmet laws between 1990 and 1996.  The 2001 question is somewhat different, and I think the way it's worded may be more favorable to the "no" position than the earlier questions.  But for what it's worth, it points towards growing opposition.

The conclusion:  at least we can rule out "no change."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Discovery of American Exceptionalism

As I mentioned in a previous post, social scientists and historians have been debating "American Exceptionalism" for years, but the general public remained unaware of the term.  ("Exceptionalism" still gets flagged as a misspelling in word processors).  But now everyone's talking about it, or at least everyone who's running for the Republican presidential nomination.  I wondered when and how this happened, so I searched the New York Times and got counts of use in different periods:

1990-94   3
1995-99  11
2000      6
2001      1
2002      7
2003      7
2004     17
2005     13
2006     12
2007     12
2008     28
2009     22
2010     30
2011     28 (thru June 17)

So it seems like the breakthrough came in stages--2004, 2008, and this year.  I suspect that's linked to Presidential campaigns--that someone promoted it in 2004, it appeared often enough to stick in some people's minds for 2008, and it was used enough in 2008 so that it's started to become common currency.  But I don't know who the specific people who popularized it were. 

PS:  Ironically, the term seems to have originated in Marxist circles.   It was picked up by the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, who had been a Marxist in his youth, and became the leading proponent of the idea.  He died in 2006, so he isn't directly responsible for its recent popularity. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

American Exceptionalism and Israel

In my last post, I mentioned the claim that support for Israel was deeply connected to prevailing American values.  I found it in a Wall Street Journal piece, which quoted  Walter Russell Mead:
As the stunning and overwhelming response to Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress showed, Israel matters in American politics like almost no other country on earth. . . . the people and the story of Israel stir some of the deepest and most mysterious reaches of the American soul. The idea of Jewish and Israeli exceptionalism is profoundly tied to the idea of American exceptionalism. The belief that God favors and protects Israel is connected to the idea that God favors and protects America.
That's a plausible argument, since many Americans do seem to think that the country has a special relationship with God, but his only evidence is the Congressional response to the speech.  It's hard to decide exactly which survey questions are relevant, but the immediate issue between Obama and Netanyahu involved Israel's borders, so let's start there.  There are very few direct questions on the topic, but here is one, from a McLaughlin and Associates survey in 2004:

Do you agree with the position that in any future peace agreement, Israel should be entitled to defensible borders or do you agree with the position that Israel should be forced to return to the boundaries of 1967, when Israel was eight miles wide at its narrowest point and came under attack?  54% defensible; 16% 1967 borders; 30% don't know.
Of course, the language used in the question is not exactly neutral, and what strikes me is that almost half of the people didn't choose "entitled to defensible borders."

On how much Israel matters to Americans, there's a Gallup survey of February 2011 that goes through a list of countries and asks "how important do you think what happens in each of the following countries is to the United States today--would you say it is vitally important, important but not vital, not too important, or not at all important?"  Here are the nations, ranked by the percent saying "vitally important"
                        Vitally important
China                      70%
North Korea                59%
Iran                       57%
Israel                     54%
Afghanistan                51%
Mexico                     50%
Pakistan                   48%
Egypt                      45%
Canada                     39%
Russia                     36%
India                      31%

Of course, saying that what happens in a country is "vitally important" is not the same as valuing that country.  Still, Israel isn't exceptional here--the numbers are similar for other countries in the middle east.

Maybe the most relevant question is:  "Overall do you favor or oppose the United States putting more pressure on Israel to make compromises with the Palestinians?"  Unfortunately, this was asked a while ago (2002, by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland), but 56% said they favored more pressure and 35% opposed.

Then a very general question:  "In the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more, Israel or the Palestinians?"  (Pew, May 2011)  48% Israel, 11% Palestinians, 4% both, 15% neither, 21% Don't know.

So overall, American opinion is favorable to Israel, but there's no sign of a profound connection to the depths of the American soul.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Postscript and Preview

 In my April 22 post on attitudes towards redistribution, I mentioned the idea that support for redistribution was motivated by envy.  James Lindgren attributed this idea to Ludwig von Mises, in a book from the 1920s, but I thought it must go back farther than that.  I did a search in Google Books, and found that it appeared in Inequality and Progress, by George Harris, published in 1897.  I had never heard of Harris, and wondered whether his book was worth reading, so I looked for reviews.  I found an unsigned review in the Journal of Political Economy, which briefly summarized its contents, and then offered the following judgment:  "The book contains little that is new.  The printer is to be congratulated on the workmanship of the volume." To my surprise, I didn't find any prominent thinker before von Mises who argued that the demand for redistribution reflected envy.  Before then, even people who opposed it seemed to think that the motive was either straightforward self-interest (on the part of the poor people) or generosity and compassion (on the part of rich people). 

The term "American exceptionalism" has been used by academics for quite a while.  Basically, it's the idea the values and opinions Americans are substantially different from those of people in other economically developed countries, that the differences go back far into the past, and that they're likely to persist.  Between 1940 and 1990, it appeared a total of 13 times in the New York Times.  Sometime in the last 10 years, the term got picked up by political and media figures on the right.  Since 2010, it's appeared 55 times in the New York Times, including quotes from Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich (basically saying that Obama doesn't believe in it and they do).  One of the more interesting recent examples was a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying that support for Israel was a key part of American exceptionalism--not just a feature of American policy, but something that ordinary people were deeply committed to (and, of course, that Obama didn't understand that).  I'd never seen that claim in the academic literature, so I looked for data. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Rapture: This Time I Mean It

As mentioned in my last post, one survey appeared to find much lower numbers believing in the "Rapture."  I checked the codebook, and found that 1=Will happen; 2=won't happen; 3=world won't end (volunteered).  In the data, 48% chose 1, 38% chose 2, and 1% chose 3.  13% chose 0--what that means is not described in the codebook.  So it appears that the figures reported in the last post were based on taking the first actual answer (0) as the first listed answer (1), the second actual (1) as the second listed (2), etc.  (The figures I report here involve actual number of people--the percentages reported by the Roper Center probably used sampling weights, so they're a little different).

Just to check, I broke down the answers by responses to another question, about whether the Bible is the literal word of God, divinely inspired but not to be taken literally, or a book written by men and not the word of God.The results:
                 0        1      2     3        Total             
Not sure        35%      22%    41%    2%       100%
Literal         10%      76%    14%    1%       100%
Inspired        15%      44%    40%    1%       100%
Just men        10%      10%    78%    2%       100%

So it's pretty clear that 1 does correspond to "yes," and the undocumented 0 value probably designates "don't know."  Like the other surveys mentioned last time, this one finds that about half of contemporary American adults say they believe in the Rapture.  So never mind the clever hypotheses in the last post.