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March 20, 2005

Spinning Polls

As I noted in my previous post, today's New York Times kicks off an article on social security with the observation that "Judging from the polls, President Bush's plan to transform Social Security... isn't going very well."  I know that this is revisiting some old news, but the Times lead hearkens back to this CNNMoney headline from a few weeks back:

Poll: Bush slips on Social Security
Number of those who say retirement plan needs fixing in the next two years falls to 38% from 49%.

And there is this, from the Gallup Organization:

Majority Disapproval for Bush on Social Security

That latter headline is based on this information:

George W. Bush's ratings for handling Social Security have dropped in recent weeks as debate on the issue has intensified, with a majority now disapproving. Additionally, Americans today perceive less urgency for Social Security reform: fewer say major changes are needed to the system within the next two years than did so in January.

Note that neither of these results has much to do whether the public generally supports some form of reform involving private accounts.  The first question pertains only to whether people think the president is doing a good sales job. (Surprise! They don't.) The second question refers only to the timing of the reform.

If you've heard this before I apologize, but let me suggest a few alternative headlines, based on a larger universe of poll results.  These come from a Gallup report dated Thursday. (You will have to subscribe to gain access, but it's free for a 30 day trial.)  To avoid confusion, I'll put the made-up headlines in red.

Majority Approve of Private Accounts

That would seem justified by these results:   

Would you favor or oppose a plan in which people who choose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market? (ABC News/Washington Post poll, March 10-13, 2005)

Favor        Oppose        No Opinion
    56%           41                  3

A question from Gallup's March 7-10 poll used the following language, and received a similarly positive response.

Suppose Congress and the president do pass legislation to make changes to the Social Security system this year. Do you think that legislation should -- or should not -- include a provision that would allow people who retire in future decades to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market and bonds?

   Yes, Should      No, Should Not   No Opinion
        58%                   37                        5

Another question, from a Feb. 16-21 Pew Research Poll, using language along these same lines, yielded a solidly positive balance of opinion, although it also found a higher number of people expressing no opinion (probably because the question was preceded by one asking how much they had heard or read about the proposal).

[Generally, do you favor or oppose] a proposal which would allow younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private retirement accounts, which might include stocks or mutual funds? (Pew Research Poll, Feb. 16-21, 2005)

  Favor        Oppose        No Opinion
46%             38                  16

Or how about this...

Majority Say Social Security Should Be Fixed Now

... supported by this data:

Do you think it is -- or is not -- necessary for Congress and the president to pass legislation this year to make changes to the Social Security system?

      Yes, is      No, is not        No Opinion
51%             46                       3

OK, full disclosure time.  When asked if there should be a trade-off between allowing diversion of funds into private accounts and future benefit receipts, poll respondents say "no" by a large margin, suggesting this headline:

When Asked, Majority Say They Want Free Lunch

As to the difference between the positive response to whether there ought to be reform this year and the oft-reported result noted in the CNNMoney headline above:  The latter question makes reference to "major reform" and the former does not.  Let me suggest, then, this headline:

Majority Get Nervous When You Ask Them A Question That Suggests Life As They Know It Is About To Come To An End

Wait. There's more interesting things in the Gallup report.  This is based on Feb. 4-6 polling:

Assuming there would be no change in Social Security benefits for those who are now age 55 or older, do you think each of the following would be a good idea or a bad idea to address concerns with the Social Security system? How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?         

                                                                   Good idea    Bad idea    No Opinion

Limiting benefits for wealthy retirees                   68%            29                3

Requiring higher income workers to pay
Social Security taxes on ALL of their wages           67             30                3

Further reducing the total amount of benefits
a person would receive if they retire early            40             57                 3

Increasing Social Security taxes for all workers     37             60                3

Increasing the age at which people are
eligible to receive full benefits                                 35             63                2

Reducing retirement benefits for people
who are currently under age 55                               29             67               4

I'm kind of enjoying my tryout, so how about this one out for that last list of responses: 

Majority Say Tax That Guy Behind The Tree

Here's one final set of results from Gallup.

Which is riskier for average American workers today: investing some of their Social Security taxes in stocks and bonds, or relying on the Social Security system to pay them the current level of benefits when they retire?      

Investing in        Relying on          No Opinion
stocks and          the system
bonds is             to pay current
riskier                level of benefits
                          is riskier

  46%                        50                            4

I've hit on this objection of treating benefits under the current system as if they are riskless before. If I believed for a second that this poll stuff was informative, I'd say I told you so.