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Polls that make no sense

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

Here’s a question from a recent national exit poll: “Which is closer to your view? Government should do more. (Or) government is doing too much.” More voters said “too much” than said “not enough.” Political analysts picked up that response and ran with it for days.

Has anyone noticed through all this that the question is meaningless? Government should do more of what? Of what is government doing too much? These would seem important distinctions.

Ask me, and I’ll say that the federal government should do more in the areas of basic medical research, Wall Street regulation, environmental protection, public transportation and space exploration. But government does too much defense spending, insuring houses in flood-prone areas, sending checks to farmers and harassing pot smokers (thank you, Colorado and Washington state). Most Americans, I think, would supply mixed answers, given the opportunity.

Another exit poll question: “Do you think things in the country are … going in the right direction? (Or) seriously off on the wrong track?” “Things” are clearly on the move.

In my view, employment, energy efficient cars and the revised menu at Wendy’s are things going in the right direction. But the projected deficits, global warming and declining civic engagement — not so great.

“Do you consider yourself conservative or liberal?” is constantly asked. But the question raises another question: How do we define left and right, conservative or liberal?

Some folks think they’re conservative because they want lower taxes. How they can advocate cutting government revenues over the long term in the face of soaring deficits — and call themselves fiscally conservative — is beyond me.

Many play the tax-cuts-alwayscreate growth game, but we don’t have to play with them. Tax policy matters for growth, but how so depends on the current rates and economic conditions. Economic growth does result in more revenues, but a government that shows itself willing to pay its bills encourages investors.

Obviously, these left-right questions don’t mean much when you’re talking about issues that defy easy political labels. (Libertarians know that score well.) Frankly, I don’t care whether America is going rightward, leftward or sideways. I want it to be functional.

There’s another exit poll question that everyone’s talking about: “Should some or all of the Obama health care law be repealed?” For the record, 49 percent responded that they wanted the law partially or fully repealed. Only 44 percent wanted the law as-is or expanded.

But the public’s slim understanding of what’s in the health care reforms makes these answers useless. So it is pointless to direct policy on the basis of that poll question.

Also, giving respondents the option of saying “partially repealed” throws everything off. Many of us like the parts that cost money (coverage of pre-existing conditions) but not the parts that pay for the parts that cost money (the individual mandate). It was always thus.

It is a relief that the re-election of President Obama and the retention of a Democratic majority in the Senate will push the health care reforms forward. And here’s a guarantee: Once they are in effect — and Americans see that they’re getting great medical care at less cost (and with less stress over losing coverage) — the demands for repeal will all but disappear.

Going full circle, back to the first exit poll question, I think curbing health care costs is something government should do more of. Paying for care that costs more than other equally effective treatments is something it should do less of.

Meanwhile, expanded security in medical coverage is a thing that’s going in the right direction. The inability of so many Americans to appreciate that is going in the wrong direction.

Any other questions?

©2012 The Providence Journal Co.

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