Monday, July 30, 2012

More on Gun Control

In the NY Times, Ross Douthat links to some Gallup data showing a decline in support for gun control since 1990, and offers an interesting argument about the reason.  He suggests that it's one aspect of a general move towards individualism--the idea that people should be allowed do what they want as long as it doesn't directly hurt other people.  With many issues, this idea has "liberal" implications (same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana) but with gun control it has "conservative" implications.  Before his column came out, I found another series of questions on gun control, "do you favor or oppose stricter gun control laws?"  (There were minor variations in question wording, but they seem unlikely to have made a difference).  Here is the plot of percent favor minus percent opposed:

There is also some downward trend, but also a lot of short-term change (maybe in response to events in the news).  I think this volatility counts against the idea that the decline reflects a general change in values.  That kind of change is driven mainly by generational replacement, producing a gradual and steady change (which is what you see with same-sex marriage).   Also, as Douthat notes, the decline in support for gun control 1990 might also be explained as a response to declining crime rates.   If support for gun control declined in the 1970s and 1980s, when crime was steady or increasing, that would be stronger evidence that it was related to a rise of individualism.  Gallup also asked a question about handguns that goes back farther, and my impression is that opinion didn't start to show a trend until about 1990.  I may take a closer look in a future post. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Declining Support for Gun Control?

The other day I heard something on NPR saying that, by one measure, support for gun control had declined from over 80% (I believe they said that was in the 1980s) to less than half today.  I'd thought that it had been pretty steady over time, so I checked for surveys that asked comparable questions over a period of time. 

There have been a number of questions on assault rifles, with the basic form "are you for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell, or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles?"

             For        Against
1995    68%       30%
1996    57%       42%
2000    59%       39%
2004    50%       46%
2011    43%       53%

It looks like a substantial decline in support for a ban on assault rifles.  But the 1995 question had an introduction:   "if you would favor or oppose the following proposal which some people have made to reduce crime:  a ban on the manufacture, sale, etc."  The mention of reducing crime might have made people more inclined to say they favored it.  If you leave that question aside, there has been some decline in support for a ban, although not as dramatic.  

There was a question in 1989 asking "do you think it should be legal or illegal to manufacture and sell semi-automatic rifles known as assault rifles"; only 20% said it should be legal and 73% said illegal.     But there was one in 2006 asking if assault rifles "should be sold to the general public or should their sales be limited to the military and police"; 15% said they should be sold to the general public and 82% that their sales should be limited to the military and police.  You could interpret the different results as ambivalence or confusion, or as people making a distinction (some people favoring regulation but not a complete ban). 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Candidates' Tax Returns

Mitt Romney's unwillingness to release more than two years of tax returns is currently getting a lot of attention in the media.   The Romney campaign says "there is no evidence that voters care about this.  They think they know enough about Mitt Romney's finances."  Of course, this is what you'd expect the Romney campaign to say, but there are a lot of things that seem important to journalists and political insiders but not to the public (pretty much all "gaffes," for example).  I didn't expect to find many surveys asking about Romney's tax returns, although that may change soon if the issue stays in the news, so I looked for more general questions about candidates and tax returns.  To my surprise, there were only a handful.  The most interesting one is from back in 1988, asking "if it would prevent you from voting for the candidate or if it would have no effect" if a candidate "refused to release tax returns to the public."  72% said it would prevent them and 19% said it would have no effect.  They also asked about a number of other things.  The complete list:
                                          Prevent from voting for
Was known to have physically
    abused spouse or child                        91%
Refused to release tax returns                    72%
Was homosexual                                    65%
Had been convicted for drunk driving              57%
Said religion dictated his/her decisions          57%
Did not believe in God                            56%
Refused to be tested for AIDS                     54%
Had used drugs occasionally                       47%
 Had extra-marital affairs                        43%
Family member had criminal conviction             21%
Has a child out of wedlock                        21%

So there's evidence that voters care about releasing tax returns in general, although not about whether two years versus ten years makes a difference.

Monday, July 16, 2012

America's ranking

In honor of July 4th, this post is about a survey of where America ranks of various qualities.  (July 4th was almost two weeks ago, but I blog at a leisurely pace).  The survey was sponsored by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and US News.  The questions were introduced with "the UN Human Development report has ranked 32 industrial countries, including the United States, on a number of dimensions. Where do you think the United States ranks – from 1 being first to 32 being last – on each of the following?"  The items were:
                                                                                              Median perceived              Actual
life expectancy at birth                                                                 5th                               24th
research and development 
   expenditures as a percentage of GDP                                      10th                               ?
economic equality as 
   measured by the ratio of the richest
   10% to poorest 10% in income or consumption                      15th                              30th
Gender equality as measured by the ratio of
   female to male earned income                                                 15th                               ?
Mathematics literacy scores                                                       15th                              25th

I was unable to find the original UN report ranking 32 nations, and the Center for Public Leadership didn't report the actual rankings for R&D and gender equality, but I think the median public rankings are pretty close to the true ranking on those items (see the Human Development Report for rankings of all countries). 

That raises the question of who perceives the United States as ranking higher or lower.  I looked at the effects of self-rated ideology and education.  Conservatives see the United States as ranking better on every item.  I thought that math literacy might be an exception, since conservative leaders often are critical of American education, but the association was about equally strong for all.

The effects of education were more varied:  more educated people thought we ranked worse on math scores and better on life expectancy, gender equality, and R&D expenditures.  There was no association with perceived rank on inequality. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Price controls

Another question from the Opinion Research Corporation:  "In normal times, do you think we can depend on competition to keep prices at fair levels, or is some sort of government control needed to keep prices fair?"

        Competition    Control   DK
1946       66%           30%     4%
1953       68%           27%     5%
1955       63%           32%     5%
1955       65%           30%     5%
1962       43%           43%    14%
1963       50%           38%    12%

That was the last time they asked about "normal times," but they later asked:  "Do you think we can depend on competition to keep prices at fair levels this year, or is some sort of government control needed to keep prices fair?"

        Competition    Control   DK

1971       27%           62%     11%
1974       26%           63%     11%

Between 27% and 43% of the public said that there should be price controls in "normal times," a proposition that would get almost zero support among policymakers and professional economists.  Clear majorities supported price control in 1971, and again in 1974 even though price controls had then been in effect for several years and hadn't been very effective in reducing inflation.  

Of course, it's possible that there would be less support for price controls today.  However, I think these results illustrate an important point about public opinion on economic policy:  it can't really be classified as liberal or conservative.  The best term might be "dirigiste":  people think that the government should be more active in regulating "bad" things, whether they involve companies raising prices or workers going on strike. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


Over a period of about 40 years, the Opinion Research Corporation occasionally asked:
"In [all] industries where there is competition, do you think companies should be allowed to make all [the profit] they can, or should the government put a limit on the profits companies can make? "
The results (* indicates that the question included the words in brackets).

       All they can  limit    DK
1946     61           31       8
1953     65           28       7
1955     66           28       6
1955     67           27       7
1961     62           24      14
1962     61           25      14
1963     53           32      15
1971     55           33      12
1973     48           40      12
*1975    36           55       9
*1976    39           55       6
*1977    39           55       6
*1979    34           60       6
*1981    41           51       8
*1983    43           51       6
*1986    61           31       8

Support for limits on profits rose in the 1970s and early 1980s, before dropping in 1986. The most plausible explanation of the rise is that it was a reaction to the high inflation of that time.  There seems to be no real trend over the longer term--opinions in 1986 were just like opinions in 1946--but unfortunately the question hasn't been asked since then.