Dramatic Results on Taxes, Green Economy from Informed Microcosm
For the first time ever, a scientific random sample of the people of Michigan gathered together to deliberate about the hard choices facing the state’s economic future. Results of Michigan’s first Deliberative Poll® show what the people of the state would think if they could all become more informed and discuss the issues in depth. Highly representative in both attitudes and demographics, a sample of 314 participants deliberated for a long weekend in Lansing, with both small group discussions and plenary sessions in which their questions were answered by competing experts. The resulting changes of opinion in the final survey offer some dramatic recommendations for both policymakers and the public. These results will be broadcast first on Michigan public television stations January 18 and then on stations around the country in a one hour documentary Hard Times/Hard Choices.
What is Deliberative Polling®
Conventional polls represent the public's surface impressions of sound bites and headlines. Deliberative Polls, by contrast, is an attempt to use social science to reveal what the public would think if it were more engaged and informed. Scientific samples are convened to deliberate under transparently good conditions for considering the issue—vetted and balanced briefing materials, small group discussions with trained moderators, questions from the small groups directed to competing experts and confidential questionnaires before and after deliberation. The process has been used in many countries around the world, ranging from the US and Britain, to the entire EU, Brazil and Argentina, China and Japan. Deliberative Polling was first proposed by James Fishkin in 1988 and has been developed since then in collaboration with Robert C. Luskin. For more information see the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, http://cdd.stanford.edu.
Taxes: What Should We Increase? What Should We Cut?
As Michiganders confronted the budget crisis and the demands on scarce state resources, they moved strongly to support increases in certain taxes and decreases in others. They also held the line on essential services but expressed increased willingness to pay for them. Strikingly, the taxes they were willing to increase were the ones that affect their lives most obviously-- sales and income taxes--while the taxes they moved to cut affect their lives only indirectly through the stimulation of new jobs. Their final deliberative views on taxes are dramatically different from “top of the head” conventional polls.
Support for increasing the sales tax went up by fourteen points from 37% to 51%. Similarly, support for increasing the income tax went up by 18 points from 27% to 45%. Support for increasing the beer and wine tax was high both before and after deliberation (increasing from 66 to 68%). People were willing to shoulder new burdens they could feel.
By contrast, support for cutting the business tax rose by a gigantic 27 points from 40% to 67%. Similarly, support for cutting income taxes for small businesses went up 15 points from 62% to 77%. Even cutting income taxes for “big business” increased significantly in support (from 27 to 34%). More generally, “supplying tax incentives for companies to move to Michigan”.had high levels of support both before and after (moving only from 74% to 78%). After deliberation participants were interested in certain tax cuts that might stimulate jobs but they were willing to accept the pain of tax increases that might help the state’s difficult finances.
Spending and Benefits
A key rationale for tax increases was the need to maintain (and sometimes even increase) essential services. Support rose from 50% to 55% for the notion that “ the State Government should spend more on programs like education, health care, and pensions even if this means increasing taxes” (emphasis added). In considering these trade-offs, they were increasingly mindful of budgetary limitations if there are no new revenues. For example, agreement that the state government cannot now afford to increase unemployment benefits went up 12 points from 41% to 53%
Despite the difficult budget constraints, they wished to maintain essential services, particularly those affecting the more vulnerable. On a series of policy issues, substantial majorities supported key services, both before and after deliberation. For example, at the end of the deliberations there were strong majorities for:
“Increasing tax credits for low income workers” 61%
“Spending more for medical care for those who cannot afford it” 64%
“Providing more subsidized daycare” 57%
“Spending more for low-income housing for those who cannot afford it” 53%
“Spending more on public schools in low-income areas” 67%
“Providing emergency aid to poor families who do not qualify for welfare” 73%
“Extending unemployment benefits to part time and temporary workers who are looking for work” 60%
However, support for “increasing the minimum wage” actually dropped significantly from 58 to 52%, presumably because of arguments about effects on employment. And “increasing cash assistance for families” had minority support throughout and dropped from 35% to 31% but with 35% neither favoring nor opposing after deliberation.
Overall, however, there was support after deliberation for increasing many services and benefits to poor families in the face of a difficult budget crisis. And this support was coupled with a realization that the budget might require significant tax increases.
The Environment: Moving Toward a Green Economy
Another major result was the consistent focus of the deliberators on the environment. On a wide range of questions, there were statistically significant increases in support for the policy options that were responsive to environmental concerns:
“Making Michigan a greener economy” rose 12 points from 55% to 67%.
“Increasing incentives for businesses to produce green products and services”
rose 15 points from 60 to 75%
“Designing and redesigning buildings to be energy efficient” rose 9 points from 52 to 61%.
“Increasing tax credits for energy efficient homes and businesses 12 points from 54% to 66%.
“Encouraging people to use less energy” rose 7 points from 61 to 68%.
“Creating and maintaining state parks” rose 6 points from 46 to 52%.
“Training people for green jobs” rose 14 points from 58% to 72%.
“Requiring a greater percentage of electricity to come from renewable energy” rose 8 points from 58 to 66%
In one policy domain after another, the green economy and environmental concerns more broadly went up significantly in the post-deliberation results.
Participants were asked about different policy directions the state government could emphasize in building Michigan’s economic future. Both before and after there was strongest support for “making Michigan a knowledge/high tech economy” (74% before deliberation, 81% after). As already noted, support for “making Michigan a greener economy” rose from 56% to 67%. “Strengthening Michigan’s agricultural economy” rose 12 points from 66% to 78% and “boosting Michigan’s tourism economy” rose 17 points from 56% to 73%. Support for “rebuilding Michigan’s manufacturing economy” was strong but largely unchanged before and after (64% to 66%).
After deliberation, all the options had strong support but none predominated. The participants found a number of ideas worth pursuing, but seemed to conclude that there was no single solution to the state’s economic problems.
While the primary focus of the deliberations was on state policy, some questions were also asked about whether “the efforts of volunteers working outside government” could lead to significant improvements. For education, the percentage believing volunteers could help a great deal rose significantly from 73% to 81%, for “services to those in need” the percentage rose significantly from 77% to 84%, for the environment the percentage rose significantly from 70% to 81%. In other areas such as health care, job training and the skill level of the workforce, there were strong majorities both before and after for the notion that volunteers could help a great deal.
Efficacy, Trust, Toleration
The project took place in a time of widespread disaffection from government. The participants’ sense of efficacy increased but from an initially low level. For example, the percentage who thought “Public officials care a lot about what people like me think” was only 25% before deliberation. It rose significantly by ten points, to 35%. Similarly those disagreeing with the statement “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does” rose significantly from 42 to 48%. However, even after deliberation, “trust in the State Government of Michigan to do what is right” stayed low (25% before, 26% after).
Despite the strong feelings and evident political differences, the very fact of dialogue led to a greater sense of toleration. The percentage agreeing with the statement “People with views very different from mine often have good reasons for their views even when they are wrong” went up 10 points from 58% to 68%
The participants were asked to evaluate each component of the event. They gave it very high marks. The overall process was rated valuable by 83%, the small group discussions by 89%, “meeting and talking to other delegates outside the group discussions” by 83%, the large plenary sessions by 75%. 76% agreed that “my group moderator provided the opportunity for everyone to participate in the discussion.” 63% agreed that “the members of my group participated relatively equally in the discussions.” 85% disagreed that “my group moderator sometimes tried to influence the group with his or her own views.” 53% agreed that “my group moderator tried to make sure that opposing arguments were considered.” And 57% agreed that “I learned a lot about people very different from me—about what they and their lives are like.”
The 314 Michiganders who gathered for the weekend in Lansing from all over the state can be compared to a separate sample of 300 who took the same questionnaire. The weekend participants were highly representative in terms of age, race, gender, income and most importantly, in terms of all the attitudes on the issues to be discussed. In effect, the entire state gathered in microcosm in one place to consider the issues.
Partners and Sponsors
Hard Times, Hard Choices is a program of By the People, a civic engagement initiative launched by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, working in partnership with the Center for Deliberative Democracy (CDD) at Stanford University. By the People seeks to bring the views of informed, “ordinary” citizens into the discussion of the important issues of the day. Since its launch in 2002, BTP has supported well over 200 Citizen Deliberations around the country and more than 100 national and local PBS broadcasts, on issues ranging from national security to healthcare to education. This project is supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
Deliberative Polling® is a trade mark of James S. Fishkin. Any fees from the trade mark are used to support research at the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.