PPIC Poll's Loaded Pro-Tax Questions

DEC. 10, 2010


The first rule of opinion polling is that if you are allowed to frame the questions, the results are just a predictable conclusion.  Such is the case with a new poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), which tries to spin public opinion in favor of raising $20 billion in taxes per year to preserve funding for essential public services while remaining silent about luxury public goods for special political constituencies.

Curiously, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown uses almost the same wording as the PPIC poll in his recent “Budget Summit” announcement that he is going to put a question to voters whether “they want to choose between fewer services or higher taxes.” But such questions already beg the answer that is obviously desired by the Siamese triplets of the pollsters, the politicians and the media who want to raise taxes purportedly so that the public safety net isn’t cut.

This polling tactic is called reframing the question.  Both the pollsters and the politicians are using this tactic to get the political “bandwagon” effect rolling in favor of tax increases to solve the chronic public budget deficit. The trick is to symbolically put essential public services on the chopping block while leaving undiscussed and untouched expensive luxury public goods, lavish pensions, artificial jobs and false economies of green power that serve elites.

Here are just a few specific questions the PP Poll didn’t ask that would not necessarily result in significant cuts in basic public service levels but would impact budgetary sacred cows mostly by cutting out funding luxury public goods for special constituencies.

1. Should public pension plans be converted into 401-K plans just like the private sector has?  Should the public provide a financial incentive for converting public pensions into 401-K plans?

2. Should protected categorical jobs (“make work jobs”) in all state agencies be cut back per the recommendations of the state Legislative Analyst’s Office for a possible savings of $18 billion per year to plug the $20 billion structural budget deficit?

3. Should $4.1 billion in unspent bonds out of the $18.7 billion in prior water bonds, mostly spent on land acquisition for greenbelts, be diverted to more immediate social welfare needs (e.g., unemployment insurance fund deficit, CalWorks fund deficit, etc.)?

4. Are you willing to pay at least $735 per family per year in higher electricity bills for green power to pay mainly for cleaner air in Canada, Utah and Arizona where California currently gets much of its imported power from?

5. Would you be willing to continue to pay $8,736 per student or $183,456 per average classroom in our K-12 public schools to maintain an average class size of 21 students? Should the governor propose increasing the average class size for K-12 public schools to just 24 students, saving $1,092 per student, as part of the budget deficit solution package?

6. Would you support the governor putting on the ballot that the $2 billion of unspent bond funds out of the $3 billion authorized under Prop 71 for stem cell research be canceled and diverted to needy Medi-Cal patients and the State Worker’s Compensation Fund?

7. Should the governor and attorney general petition the court to halt the court-ordered conversion of cooling systems on 19 coastal power plants from ocean water to expensive chillers, thus saving electricity ratepayers $3.6 to $4.2 billion in costs, until economic conditions improve or the courts allow a cost/benefit analysis?

8. Should the governor tell the proponents of the proposed $11.1 billion water bond on the 2012 ballot that he will not support the bond unless:  1) $1 billion in political pork is cut out; and 2) the plan to remove hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Oregon be scrapped so that California has cheap and clean hydropower available in the event of another electricity crisis? (Note: the removal of the dams will require replacement by polluting gas-fired power plants).

9. Should the governor ask the courts to invalidate AB375 (“anti-sprawl” bill) on the environmental grounds that by diverting population growth away from inland areas where cheap groundwater resources are more abundant, dependence on expensive imported water supplies from the Sacramento Delta is increased? (Groundwater typically costs $100 per acre foot and imported water $500 to $1,000 per acre foot. An acre-foot is a football field of water one foot high that supplies two families with water per year).

10.  Would you have voted for the suspension of green power (Yes on Prop 23 – “Suspend Green Power”) if you knew that funding for K-12 education and essential health and welfare services and assistance would be negatively impacted?

In nearly all of the above questions the symbiotic relationship of luxury public goods and essential public services have been addressed rather than omitted as they are in state budget deficit discussions, opinion polls and unquestioned by media coverage.

For example, Props 12, 13, 40, 50 and 84 totaling $18.7 billion are touted as water bonds but overwhelmingly funded acquisition and “greenscaping” of open land to enhance surrounding property values in wealthy urban enclaves and no significant new water resources were developed.  Likewise, local tax credits and rebates for solar powered homes that add to the state budget deficit are mostly luxury goods for the wealthy.  Environmental goods are luxury goods for elites.

The recent defeat of Prop. 23 to suspend green power indicates that Californians want to continue funding for luxury environmental goods, but they were never told this might be at the sacrifice of funding for public schools and core health and welfare services.  Now the pollsters and the politicians want you to believe that the only way to keep essential public services intact is to raise taxes by $20 billion per year, which would merely keep luxury public goods and services untouched.  The propaganda for a tax increase is even made to sound financially accountable and prudent by advocating that the over use of bonds (cheap credit cards) should be replaced by a “pay-go” (cash) system of financing.

Many on the “progressive” side of the political dividing line cry out to “tax the rich” to solve California’s state budget deficit.  Conservatives answer that the rich are already disproportionately paying taxes in California. Both miss the point that California government has expanded into providing luxury public goods that are apparently untouchable in the state budget and un-discussable in the legislative budget summits, opinion polls and newspapers. Luxury public goods are stealth budget bombers that are undetected by media and public opinion poll radar screens.

If you want to tax the rich to plug the state budget deficit perhaps the best way is to cut back the luxury goods, categorical jobs programs, lavish benefit packages and services that are so institutionalized into state government that they are seen as “essential” when they are not.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the popular book The Black Swan that foretold of the national financial meltdown, in his new book, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010), writes of the phoniness of public opinion polls:

“Anyone voicing a forecast or expressing an opinion without something at risk has some element of phoniness.  Unless he risks going down with the ship this would be like watching an adventure movie.”

Much of the budget discussions about the state deficit are symbolic contests for who has the moral high ground: those who make the phony contention that they are protecting the level of essential public services for the poor and needy while leaving luxury public goods and programs untouched; or alternatively, those fiscal conservatives of whatever political persuasion who are often demonized for wanting government core public services for the most vulnerable to be preserved even if it means scrapping and reallocating funding authorizations from luxury public goods?

The Party of Government is a coalition of elites and non-elites aligned against the middle class who continually use the threat of the cut-off of services to the needy to cover for the continuation of luxury goods for the elites.  The non-elites are often only too willing to oblige them and go along with the phoniness of the social fictions.

Pollsters do this by first framing the issue with subtly loaded questions that direct the respondents down the path desired by the pollsters.  In California, if you frame a tax or electricity rate increase as a jobs issue it is likely to pass, depending on the condition of the economy.  If both sides frame their side as a jobs issue, as happened with Prop. 23, the voters will be confused or in doubt and will vote “no,” which is what happened on Nov. 2.  What do such polls tell you about the real mood or views of the public? Not much because public opinion polls hide more about the will of the power elites than they reveal about the collective opinion of the public.

Ever since the sociologist Emile Durkheim used the term “collective consciousness” to describe how people are influenced by their perceptions of the collective opinions of others, opinion polls and media coverage have sought to fashion public opinion. Contrary to the notion that public opinion polls make policy makers acknowledge the public will, such polls reflect and justify the politically powerful.

The recent PPIC poll about the structural budget deficit in California is no exception.  The poll may have a reliable statistical error factor of plus or minus 5 percent, but it is otherwise useless in helping us decide tough budget priorities or understand how luxury and non-luxury public goods are symbiotically related.  In fact, such polls subtly mislead us to believe that the only way to prioritize funding for essential services for the poor and medically needy is to raise taxes. (Plus, PPIC has a clear liberal political agenda in the studies it produces.)

This is why the California budget is chronically out of control because it can’t set priorities except to offer a basket of luxury and non-luxury public goodies, which must be accepted as a package deal.  This worked during a financial and real estate bubble but can’t work in a deflationary economy.  Tax increases will only make the economy weaker and elites and the non-elites will prosper at the expense of the middle class.  But in the end the middle class will vote with their feet and by saving rather than spending, which will undo any tax increase. And property values will fall to compensate for any higher taxes in a zero sum game.

But right now, the public is being led to believe by pollsters, politicians and media pundits that the only way out of the state’s budget morass is higher taxes.  After all, it has to be true because the opinion polls say so.

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