Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tolerance, part 3

About a month ago, I had a post about trends in tolerance.  That was inspired by the controversy over Tom Cotton's op-ed piece.  Since then, there have been a number of related controversies, including the appearance of an open letter saying that "the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," which provoked indignant responses including a counter open letter  .  There was also a letter signed by a distressingly large number of Princeton University professors calling for, among other things, "a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty."  

Historically, the left has been associated with support for relatively free expression, while the right has favored more restrictions.  As I mentioned in my last post, some people argue that this is changing, or has changed.  A number of ideas about why this might be happening have been proposed.  The simplest and most plausible one is that it reflects a change in the distribution of power.  Most people would prefer to suppress views that they find objectionable, but the left has favored the interests of marginalized groups--that is, groups that don't have the power to suppress other views--so it turned to support for the general principle of tolerance as a second-best alternative.   However, now the left has a dominant position in some major social institutions (particularly academia and the media), so it has the power to repress and is starting to like it.  On the other side, the right is weak in those institutions, so it's now calling for tolerance.  This process is not necessarily as cynical as it sounds:  any particular case has special features, so someone might say (and believe) that they support the principle of free speech, but we need to make an exception here, or this isn't really a free speech issue, or some other justification.  On the other side, the main argument is there is some basic psychological affinity between the left/right views and attitudes towards authority--the left tends to be suspicious of authority, while the right tends to be pro-authority (and sometimes authoritarian).  This suggests that the traditional relationship will endure. 

Since the 1970s, the GSS has had a series of questions prefaced by "There are always some people whose ideas are considered bad or dangerous by other people.  For instance..."  Then it asks whether different kinds of people should  be allowed to do various things, including teaching in a college or university.  The types of people regularly asked about are an Communist, an opponent of religion, a gay man, someone who supports doing away with elections and having the military run the government, and someone who believes that blacks are genetically inferior.  I computed the associations between opinions about teaching in a college or university in "early" (1972-89) and "late" (2008-18) periods for people with and without college degrees.*  All of them were positive--if you favored allowing one kind of person to teach, you were more likely to favor allowing any of the others to teach.  The averages in the two periods:

                                   Early             Recent
College                       2.50                  2.08
Non-college                1.99                  1.75

That is, the tendency to be uniformly tolerant or intolerant became weaker.  This is unusual--for most issues, "attitude constraint" (the ability to predict opinions on one from opinions on the other) has increased in recent years.  You could argue that the example of a gay man should no longer be included, since most people today would not regard him as "bad or dangerous,"  but omitting that example doesn't change the pattern.  I wondered if there would be a growing opposition between "left" and "right" pairs--Communist/anti-religion vs. militarist/racist--but there was no sign of this.

This does not directly address the possibility of a change in the association between tolerance and ideology, but it shows that there is some kind of change.  I'll consider ideology in a future post.

*Since the variables are binary, I used the log of the odds ratios to measure the association.

PS:  My last post noted that there seemed to be a general trend towards greater tolerance.  I said I expected it to continue, and that I'd give my reasons in a future post, so here they are. First, growing educational levels:  more educated people feel more comfortable with evaluating information and making choices, so they tend to favor letting everyone have their say.  Even if the ideas are totally without merit, you should let people express them so you can know those people for who they are (a number of NY Times readers' comments on the Tom Cotton controversy defended the decision to run his op-ed on these grounds).  Second, the growth of a consumer society, where people are constantly offered choices and come to think of making choices as a basic part of life. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

The public vs. the 1%?

I realize I left something out of my last post, which said that Americans were not in favor of high taxes on the rich.  The Paul Krugman column that I mentioned said "A . . . large majority has consistently said that upper-income Americans pay too little, not too much, in taxes."  He is right--since 1992, the Gallup poll as asked if upper income people are "are paying their FAIR share in federal taxes, paying too MUCH or paying too LITTLE?"  In the latest survey (2019), 9% said too much, 27% fair share, and 62% said too little.  The share saying too little has never gone below 55%.  But as my post pointed out, when you ask how much high-income people should pay, most people don't suggest high rates.  In addition to the questions I mentioned last time, here's a Gallup/USA Today poll from 2011:  "Now thinking about the wealthiest one percent of Americans, what percentage of their income do you think they should pay to the federal government in income taxes each year?"  Among those who gave an answer (28% didn't), the mean was about 24%, and only 10% said 40% or more.

How do you reconcile these results?  The answer is that most people seem to think that people with high incomes are taxed at lower rates than most middle-income people.  A 2003 survey asked "In the United States, which group do you think pays the highest percentage of their income in total federal taxes: high-income people, middle-income people, or lower-income people, or don't you know enough to say?"  25% said high-income people, 51% said middle-income people, and 11% said low income people (13% said they didn't know).  Even among people with college degrees and people earning $75,000 or more (the highest income class distinguished in the survey), most people thought that middle income people paid the highest percentage. Other surveys show that most people know that in principle marginal tax rates increase with income, so presumably they think that high-income people are able to get out of taxes by finding loopholes. 

So when people say that high income people should pay more, they are just saying that they want them to pay at the same rate that middle-class people do, or maybe a slightly higher rate.  In reality, they already do pay at a somewhat higher rate.  Most people haven't thought about the issue all that much, so you can't make precise statements about public opinion.  But in a rough sense, Americans are getting about as much redistribution as we want.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Off the scale

A Quinnipiac poll from April 2019:

"Do you support or oppose raising the tax rate to 70% on an individual's income that is over $10 million dollars?"  36% support, 59% oppose

A CNN poll from February 2019:

"Would you favor or oppose raising the personal income tax rate for those with very high incomes, so that income of ten million dollars or more would be taxed at a rate of 70%?"   41% favor, 52% oppose

A CBS News Poll from September 2009:

"If the Obama Administration proposed a tax of 50 percent or higher on the incomes of the very wealthiest millionaires, would you support it, or not?"  51% yes, 45% no

I was going to post this a couple of weeks ago, but various news events diverted my attention until a column by Paul Krugman brought it back to mind. He asks why, during a time of rising inequality, the government has cut taxes on people with high incomes.  He says "the answer is that huge disparities in income and wealth translate into comparable disparities in political influence."  Although that's certainly part of the answer, the results above show that there's another part--there's not much popular support for high tax rates, even when those rates apply only to people with very high incomes. Even people who are towards the bottom of the economic ladder aren't very enthusiastic.  The Quinnipiac results were not broken down by income, but only 31% of whites without a college degree, 51% of blacks, and 47% of Hispanics supported a 70% tax. 

This relates to an issue I've written about before.  It's sometimes said that most people are to the left on economic issues.  This suggests that the only way conservatives can win elections is by diverting their attention to "culture war" issues, or race, or some other area where the right has an advantage.  But the idea that the public is to the left on economic issues is wrong--in addition to the lack of support for high tax rates, there's not much support for inheritance taxes.  This doesn't mean that the public is conservative on economic issues--for example, most people are in favor of maintaining or increasing Social Security benefits, increasing the minimum wage, and increasing taxes on corporations.  Public opinion on economic issues don't really fit on a left/right scale, but there is a logic behind it.  I recently ran across a piece that Krugman wrote in the late 1990s which gives some insight into that logic:

"To an Anglo-Saxon economist, France’s current problems do not seem particularly mysterious. Jobs in France are like apartments in New York City: Those who provide them are subject to detailed regulation by a government that is very solicitous of their occupants. A French employer must pay his workers well and provide generous benefits, and it is almost as hard to fire those workers as it is to evict a New York tenant. New York’s pro-tenant policies have produced very good deals for some people, but they have also made it very hard for newcomers to find a place to live. France’s policies have produced nice work if you can get it. But many people, especially the young, can’t get it. And, given the generosity of unemployment benefits, many don’t even try."

These kind of measures tend to be popular--maybe more so in France, but in the US as well. People are sympathetic to someone who might lose a job or apartment, or suddenly find that they have to accept worse conditions of life or work through no fault of their own (e. g., a tenant who is confronted with a rent increase, or a worker who faces wage or benefit cuts).   Of course, from a right-wing point of view, policies that protect "insiders" are undesirable because they interfere with the market.  A left-wing point of view is sympathetic to what those policies are trying to achieve, but sees them as seriously flawed--they usually reduce overall inequality, but aren't very efficient at doing so, and they produce other kinds of inequity. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, June 30, 2020


Princeton University has just removed Woodrow Wilson's name from its School of Public and International Affairs.  It seemed like a tough call to me--Wilson had significant accomplishments. both as president of Princeton and president of the United States, but also significant negatives.  However, contemporary opinion seems to be overwhelmingly in favor of removing his name and almost no one has anything good to say about him--even Ross Douthat, who favors keeping his name for historical reasons, calls himself a "Wilson-despiser."  That led me to wonder about what the general public thought about Wilson and other presidents.  Between 1956 and 1999, the Gallup Poll occasionally asked "which three United States presidents do you regard as the greatest?"   Of course, most people don't remember all of the presidents, so there's a tendency to pick the current president, or a recent president.  Also, as time goes on, the number of presidents to choose from increases.  Putting those together, you would generally expect a decline for any given president. 

With that in mind, here are some results.  First, the classics:


 Next, a second level of 19th and early 20th century presidents:

Support for Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson was pretty steady, but Wilson had a sharp decline,. from 13% in 1956 to 5% in 1975, and about 1% in later years. 

Then, some mid-century presidents:

FDR and Eisenhower both decline steadily, but Truman shows an unusual pattern:  he rose from 13% in 1956 to 37% in 1975.  He then declined, but still had almost as much support in 1999, almost 50 years after he left office, as he did in 1956.

Finally, some more recent presidents: 

Kennedy declined, although from a high level--in 1999 he was still second, behind only Lincoln.  The contrast between Regan and Bush is interesting.  Both got 20-30% when they were in office, but Reagan rose after he left office, to 34% in 1999.  Carter started from a low level, but held steady or increased. 

Returning to Wilson, he does have a distinctive pattern--in 1956, he was tied for fifth, behind Lincoln, Washington, FDR, and the current president (Eisenhower), but his support declined rapidly after that.  Truman, and maybe Reagan, stand out as presidents whose reputation grew after they left office.  

It's been more than twenty years since Gallup asked the question, so they ought to try it again.  My guess is that Obama would get a lot of support (35% or 40%) and Kennedy would still be high but would decline because of competition from Obama, who has the same general type of appeal.  Trump would be on the low side for a sitting president (maybe 15%), and Reagan would hold steady or increase. 

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Police brutality?

There are a couple of survey questions about views of the police which go back to the 1960s.  One is "In some places in the nation there have been charges of police brutality. Do you think there is any police brutality in this area, or not?"  It was asked in 1965, 1967, a few times in the 1990s, and in 2005.  I have written about it before, and noted that the belief that there was police brutality in "this area" was higher in the 1990s and after than in the 1960s, but I didn't break it down by race, so I'll do that here.*  The individual level data for 2005 are not available, so I use surveys from 1965, 1967, 1991, and 1999.
              Is                   Isn't
        White  Black         White    Black
1965        7%      34%          82%      46%
1967        5%      15%          83%      59%
1991       36%      60%          58%      39%
1999       35%      64%          60%      30%

I computed log-linear models (treating don't know as a middle answer) and got the following estimates of the racial gap in opinions:

 The difference is largest in 1965.  There's enough uncertainty in the estimates so it's hard to say if it's a downward trend or a difference between 1965 and all later years.  But the major thing is that belief in the existence of police brutality in "your area" increased among both blacks and whites.  Why?  One possibility would be that it actually did.  However, I think it's more likely that it's because media coverage increased and people talked about it more.  In support of this interpretation, there were a lot of "don't know's" in the 1960s (20%-25% among blacks), but few in the 1990s.  I think that there's been a general tendency for don't know's to decline, although I haven't studies it systematically or seen any research, but this change is unusually large.

Although the number of blacks in the samples is small, the decline in belief in police brutality between 1965 and 1967 is too large to be plausibly explained by sampling error.  1967 was the "long hot summer" of urban unrest, and the survey was taken in early August, after the Newark and Detroit riots and many smaller ones.  Although the response to those included many examples of police brutality, the riots may have made people more sympathetic to police.  Although many accounts focus exclusively on white backlash, support for a "get tough" approach is a natural reaction to disorder and crime.  

*My figure in that post has a mistake--it shows that belief that there was police brutality was a little higher in 1967 than in 1965, but it was actually a little lower.

[Data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research]

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Nothing happened?

A few days ago, Michelle Alexander wrote that "after decades of reform, countless commissions and task forces and millions of dollars poured into 'smart on crime' approaches, the police behave with about as much brutality today as they did in 1966 when a group of young black men . . . created an organization called the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense."  She didn't give any source for this claim, but it reminded me of a New York Times story I had mentioned in a recent post, I had mentioned a New York Times story which said that in New York City, the number of people shot and killed by the police had fallen from 66 in 1972 to eight in 2014.  After a little searching, I located the source of those figures:  the NYPD's annual "Use of Force Report" reports, which started in the 1970s as the "Firearms Discharge Report."  It has annual statistics for the numbers killed and injured by police shootings.  Here they are (on a logarithmic scale):

The decline is pretty steady.  It probably has some connection to the crime rate--the number killed and injured rose during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s--but started in a time when crime was steady or increasing.  It also doesn't seem to differ much by mayoral administration. 

The report also gives the number of police killed and injured by shootings.


Again, there is a downward trend, and there's a strong correlation between the numbers of police killed or injured and civilians killed or injured by police.  This may provide some insight into why it was possible to change things.  Most killings by police involve situations in which someone is armed and posing some kind of threat, so police are at risk too.  Once the department adopted a policy of investigating and reporting on all incidents, it was possible to learn how to keep those situations from developing or getting out of control.

Of course, this is just shootings--it doesn't show whether there were changes in other kinds of police brutality.  Still, it seems that reform is not as futile as Alexander suggests.   I'm not that familiar with crime and justice data, but there are some surveys about perceptions of police treatment which I'll talk about in a future post.