Elites and People Divided on Taxes

APRIL 25, 2011


Only 9 percent of respondents to a new Los Angeles Times-USC Dornsife opinion poll said that they wanted taxes increased to solve the state budget crisis.  But that was not what the Times reported in the headline to their story, which read: “Californians support tax hikes to help close budget gap.”

The actual question was:

Q.36 As you may know, California has a total annual budget of around 85 billion dollars. This year, the state faced a budget deficit of more than 26 billion dollars, which the governor and state legislature recently reduced to 14 billion dollars by cutting funding for many state services. To close the rest of the budget deficit, which approach do you favor — cutting spending, increasing taxes, or a combination of cutting spending and increasing taxes?

Total White Latino
Cutting spending 33% 35% 29%
Increasing taxes 9% 11% 5%
Combination of cutting and increasing  taxes 53% 50% 60%
None 2% 2% 2%
Don’t know 2% 2% 3%
Refused 0% 0% 0%

53 Percent or 9 Percent?

The real indicator of public opinion in a poll is revealed when the replies indicate extreme percentages such as 80 percent or higher or 20 percent or lower.  Anything in between indicates that survey respondents may not be knowledgeable about the question or the influence of possible conformity effects.

In the above question, only 9 percent favored tax increases. Even more startling, only 5 percent of Latino respondents said they favored a tax increase.  In other words, 95 percent of Latinos do not favor raising taxes, about as close as you can get to a 100 percent answer in statistics where the margin of error of the poll was 2.5 percentage points.

Some 80 percent of those surveyed said they supported a cap on state spending and 70 percent favored limiting the amount of public pensions.

Burying the Story

In other words, the predominant public opinion is that taxes shouldn’t be raised and that there should be a cap on the state budget and pensions. But that part of the story was buried at the bottom of the Times article in what is called “burying the lead” in journalism. Burying the lead means to begin a news story with details of secondary importance while burying the most essential facts at the bottom. What happens in much newspaper journalism is that the headlines are controlled by the elites and the real story is buried in the body of the text.

The Times-USC Dornsife Poll reported in their story that 53 percent of likely voters would vote for a package of budget cuts and tax increases. Of course, once the result desired by those who hired the pollsters is reported, it becomes a self-fulfilling statistic that pressures voters to conform. Opinion polls typically do not try to report public opinion as much as influence the public to go along with what those who pay for the poll want you to believe the fictional majority of voters wants (“the bandwagon effect”).

Re-Spinning the Story

In a late turn of events, the Times issued a second story on Sunday afternoon about the USC-Dornsife poll that had an entirely different spin on it.  Titled “California voters want public employees to help ease state’s financial troubles,” and written by a different reporter, the second story reported that voters want public employees to give up some pension benefits to help balance the state’s long-term structural budget crisis. This flip-flop may have been due to online comments received to the first article.

So this raises the question: who paid for the “LA Times-USC-Dornsife” opinion poll?

The University of Southern California Dornsife School of Arts, Letters and Sciences is named after David Dornsife. He is the president of the Herrick Corporation, a Pleasanton-based steel fabricating company, who gave $200 million to the USC School in March 2011.  So using his name on the poll implies his endorsement.  Dornsife is a conservative industrialist who has donated to religious charities such as World Vision.

But the Times-USC opinion poll reported on April 23 is part of a series of nine polls that have been ongoing since November 2009, prior to naming the USC School of Arts, Letters and Sciences after Dornsife.

Dan Schnur is director of the Dornsife school’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. Schur is a noted Republican political strategist and was Sen. John McCain’s communications director when he ran against George W. Bush in 2000 in the Republican presidential primary.

This is the second opinion poll this month paid for by wealthy businessmen with the obvious desire to influence public opinion.  The Public Policy Institute of California, a left-of-center think tank, released a poll contending that California’s great weather assets offset the many negative ratings of California’s high tax and regulatory climate. Real estate magnate Donald Bren and private fund manager and PG&E Board Member David A. Coulter funded the PPIC poll. This writer found the PPIC poll to be statistically and methodologically flawed.

Polls Indicate Something Other Than What They Measure

Taken together, what do these two polls unintentionally indicate?  These polls indicate that there is a wide divergence between the elites’ views on proposed tax increases as well as the state’s high tax and regulatory climate and the views of the public and small businesses in California.  GOP legislators even stepped in to save redevelopment from Gov. Jerry Brown’s ax last month, despite the wide unpopularity of eminent domain.

All that opinion polls are doing is further indicating the divide between elites who pay for such polls and the people — those who are not exempt from paying taxes nor are union members, and so can’t afford to pay for their own opinion polls.  If Gov. Brown and corporate elites want to solve the structural budget deficit, they are going to have to realize that the people don’t want higher taxes and more regulations.

The message of no mandate for taxes was sent loud and clear on the statewide election of November 2010, despite newspapers’ squelching the story.

Contrary to the spin put on such opinion polls by newspaper headlines, what the polls seem to be really indicating is that the voting public isn’t buying all the polls and press releases about the need for a tax increase.

Even though the people are often duped by elites to vote for feel-good ballot initiatives in California, the people are usually more prudent and better judges about taxation than the elites.


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