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The Tax Receipt and Public Opinion, cont’d

- July 12, 2011

In response to my little experiment on the tax receipt, one of its proponents, Ethan Porter, has a post up at Democracy’s blog.  He makes a good point about my experiment:

bq. But the public has been shaped by decades of harsh anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric. To expect one document to undo the effects of that rhetoric all at once is asking too much. When the Obama Administration released its own version earlier this year—albeit online, and not via postal service—politics was not upended. Is it too much to hope that, over time, a receipt sent to every taxpayer might still have an impact?

It’s true that a one-shot experiment may not tell us much, especially if, as Porter believes, public misconceptions entrenched.  That’s an important limitation to my brief study.

Porter also quotes me, via an email exchange that we had:

bq. My guess is that the taxpayer receipt would need to be coupled with a sustained set of messages from political elites that emphasized the actual distribution of government spending. This is because I’m not sure how many people would actually read and process the receipt, even if it were provided annually over several years.

Porter replies:

bq. To change people’s minds about taxes and government, certainly other initiatives would have to be undertaken. But, contra Sides, they wouldn’t all have to come from the elites. And thanks to the receipt itself, they wouldn’t have to. A receipt would increase the number of facts in the hands of citizens. This is no small thing.

And that’s the question: how big or small a “thing” are facts?  My sense is that relatively few facts, when presented in an unadorned fashion, have the power to change public opinion.  Much more important is how facts are interpreted or framed.  This is why I suggested that political elites would need to be involved: they are, for better or worse, the main source of much of the information and cues that people have about politics.

Let’s take an unrelated example where people were confronted with a fact.  In this case, the fact is how many American military casualties there had been in Iraq, which was presented to a random subset of respondents in this 2007 study (pdf) by Adam Berinsky.  Berinsky found that people’s attitudes toward the Iraq War were unchanged by hearing the actual number of casualties, even though a majority of respondents did not otherwise appear to know it.

Why this null result?  One possibility is that the number of casualties itself doesn’t inherently suggest whether a war is worth supporting.  Instead, casualty figures must be accompanied by arguments — such as about how the growing casualties are a tragic consequence of an unnecessary war, or a noble sacrifice for a heroic cause, etc., etc.

The same is true with a tax receipt.  I look at the polarized debate on the debt ceiling, spending, taxes, and the deficit and think: could a receipt really cut through that mess?  Wouldn’t the GOP just look at the receipt and say, “See, we told you that the government is wasting your money on X, Y, and Z.”  Wouldn’t the Democrats say, “See, we told you we spend too much money on defense.”  And so on.

To be clear, I think the taxpayer receipt is a great idea.  I just don’t expect it to change how the public thinks about the budget, absent some bigger changes in the kinds of messages that the public routinely receives from politicians.