Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Incoherent Public

Scott Sumner has an excellent post up today about how the idea of "public opinion" is essentially meaningless when it comes to complex policies, since the framing of the question often dictates peoples' answers. Another reason, says Sumner, is the fact that most people either don't know about the policy, or don't understand it. Sumner mostly talks about this with regard to tax policy, but this could just as easily apply to something else--say, health care reform. 

In fact, this is something I've noticed more and more, especially when I've done research on the ACA and what people think of it. I can't even remember the number of times I've read a poll that says that the Affordable Care is reviled by the American public and then, not two minutes later, I read one that says that it is popular. So why this seeming schizophrenia about the ACA?

Well, from what I can tell, the disconnect stems from the fact that the law is unpopular to people who don't actually know much about it. For example, Ezra Klein did a piece on this a few years ago, and he found that people didn't like the law when they were just asked about it generally, but the individual components of the law polled very well!

You can spin this however you want, really. For me, it really comes down to the fact that people generally don't understand complex policy making because most of them don't really have the time to laze around and read about it in depth like yours truly. They have jobs. So the degree to which they're informed on the inner workings of something like Obamacare is probably pretty low. The fact that there's an enormous amount of misinformation flying around about it doesn't help matters either. 

In general, I don't put a whole lot of stock in polling about things like this. There are a few reasons for this. The first, of course, is because people probably don't understand a lot of it, and are forced to draw on what they've heard in passing. The second is that poll respondents can be influenced to change their answers very easily, so their answers are not necessarily reflective of their true beliefs.

I don't have anything to back this up, really, but my gut instinct is that if people were given an actual explanation of what the Affordable Care Act included, instead of, say, constantly hearing how the gub'mint is going to ration their care, the law would probably enjoy a greater degree of support.

All of this makes me think of a famous quote from my youth: "The only people who don't like krabby patties, have never eaten one!"

I'm such an intellectual, I know.