I don’t really mean to single out Gallup here. Well, I guess I do; but they’re certainly not the only guilty party in the polling industry of doing what I’m about to rail against. Let’s begin by stipulating that public polls cannot escape ideological and selection biases in how they frame questions and alternative closed end response choices. Nevertheless, if poll results are to be considered even minimally descriptive of public opinion, they must make a concerted effort to include multiple frames and not exclude response choices that go beyond the dominant ideology. After all what good are polls that channel opinion in pre-determined directions compared to those that allow respondents to express their own tendencies?

Gallup provides a great illustration of illegitimate channeling and ideological bias in its recent poll (April 20-23. 2011). The poll included two questions:

Which do you think is more to blame for the federal budget deficit—[ROTATED: spending too much money on federal programs that are either not needed or wasteful, (or) not raising enough money in taxes to pay for needed federal programs]?

There were three response choices associated with this question:

— Spending too much on programs;

— Not raising enough money on taxes

— No opinion

Of course, the word “blame” in the question assumes that the Federal deficit is a negative and a problem that something should be “blamed” for. Not everyone feels that way. I, for example, think that the deficit is no problem at all, but simply a consequence of the Crash of 2008, and that most of it will go away when we fully recover, which we do not have a large or effective enough deficit to do (yes, I’m assuming that deficits if comprised of effective spending do cause recoveries).

How many people don’t think the deficit is a problem? 5%, 20%, 40% Well, probably not 40%; but, if you began polling on the deficit by asking whether people thought it was a serious problem, compared to others that will require deficit spending to solve, you’d probably find that only a minority felt that cutting the deficit was more important than solving the problems that will require continuing or expanding the deficit. When Gallup failed to ask this question first, it destroyed much of the value of its polling results, since, for example, if only 15% of people prioritize doing something about the deficit over solving other problems, then it’s not very important whether they, hypothetically, prefer to raise taxes or cut spending in order to cut that deficit?

So, the framing of Gallup’s question immediately reduces the usefulness of the results and also channels the reporting in a fictitious context where everyone believes that we must cut the deficit as our highest priority. Apart from the initial framing however, the response choices of raising taxes or cutting spending, simply reinforce the conventional wisdom about the choices available to reduce the deficit, and they ignore another choice, but that Gallup and most of the public has never heard of. That choice is using coin seigniorage to either reduce or eliminate the deficit and the national debt. Coin seigniorage could have been included in the question in this way: “Not using minting of jumbo platinum coins, as authorized by Congress to create enough revenue to reduce or eliminate the deficit.” That’s all it would have taken to have given the public another choice in order to find out whether people would be willing to place “the blame” on something else apart from the conventional two options.

There’s still another framing issue present in Gallup’s formulation of the first question. The question asks people what is more to blame for the Federal deficit. It could have asked what is more to blame for “the national debt.” Which would have been more relevant? Do people care more about the deficit or do they really just care about the national debt, or neither?

Had the question been asked about the national debt, then the alternatives would have been different. In addition to the raising taxes, cutting spending, and coin seigniorage, explanations, there’s a fourth explanation: namely that Congress requires the Treasury to issue debt when it deficit spends. Perhaps, we might have had a poll that looked entirely different if the question had focused on the national debt and also included these four things for people “to blame.”

Gallup’s second polling question on the deficit reads:

As you may know, Congress can reduce the federal budget deficit by cutting spending, raising taxes, or a combination of the two. Ideally, how would you prefer to see Congress attempt to reduce the federal budget deficit – [ROTATED: only with spending cuts, mostly with spending cuts, equally with spending cuts and tax increases, mostly with tax increases, (or) only with tax increases]?

and the response choices were:

— Only with spending cuts;
— Mostly with spending cuts;
— Equally with spending cuts and tax increases;
— Mostly with tax increases;
— Only with tax increases;
— Other (vol.)
— No opinion

Of course analogous objections apply to this question and its associated response options as the ones I’ve already given for the first question. The question implies that only two things can be done about the deficit. But there are at least three. In excluding the third, coin seigniorage, Gallup has biased the results toward alternatives that fit the frames of neo-liberal economics, a paradigm that has resulted in increasing economic and political inequality over the past 40 years.

Notice that so far I’ve refrained from talking about the results of this poll. That’s because I think the results are so biased that they provide no guide to divining the true state of American opinion on these subjects. The questions reflect only the neo-liberal elite perspectives that are rapidly marching us toward plutocracy. They don’t tell us how people would feel if they were presented with a more objective framing associated with the policy choices that are possible rather than just the ones that the Congress and the MSM are talking about today.

Imagine, finally, if Gallup’s poll had been focused on the national debt and had asked, first of all, if people felt that the national debt was a problem, and then offered all four of the “blame” and policy options for reducing the debt. I think the result of such a poll would have been far more illuminating and had much less ideological bias than we see in this poll. It’s too bad that Gallup didn’t incorporate the critical perspective and small amount of imagination necessary to take such a poll, because we badly need polling organizations like Gallup to serve us better, by not simply reflecting the frames of conventional wisdom, but also including options in its polls that reflect multiple perspectives.

This is a general problem. The MSM these days are locked into neo-liberal perspectives which provide none except painful solutions to our current problems. The polling organizations should be better than this. They should not reinforce the ideological shackles that have been forged for the American people. But should be more respectful of their founding notions about “a science of public opinion” and do what they can to reflect the true state of opinion in American.

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).



Joseph M. Firestone, Ph.D. is Managing Director, CEO of the Knowledge Management Consortium International (KMCI), and Director and co-Instructor of KMCI’s CKIM Certificate program, as well as Director of KMCI’s synchronous, real-time Distance Learning Program. He is also CKO of Executive Information Systems, Inc. a Knowledge and Information Management Consultancy.

Joe is author or co-author of more than 150 articles, white papers, and reports, as well as the following book-length publications: Knowledge Management and Risk Management; A Business Fable, UK: Ark Group, 2008, Risk Intelligence Metrics: An Adaptive Metrics Center Industry Report, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2006, “Has Knowledge management been Done,” Special Issue of The Learning Organization: An International Journal, 12, no. 2, April, 2005, Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003; Key Issues in The New Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, and Excerpt # 1 from The Open Enterprise, Wilmington, DE: KMCI Online Press, 2003.

Joe is also developer of the web sites www.dkms.com, www.kmci.org, www.adaptivemetricscenter.com, and the blog “All Life is Problem Solving” at http://radio.weblogs.com/0135950, and http://www.kmci.org/alllifeisproblemsolving. He has taught Political Science at the Graduate and Undergraduate Levels, and has a BA from Cornell University in Government, and MA and Ph.D. degrees in Comparative Politics and International Relations from Michigan State University.