Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Adler: Reality is what I say it is

Came across this rather amusing commentary at the National Post Web site from esteemed right-wing blowhard Charles Adler. It’s quite the twisted little bit of illogic to say the least.

Repeating the died in the wool mantra of the right that taxes are too high and tax cuts are a cure all, Charlie seems to downplay a recent Leger poll that said Quebecers don’t want tax cuts, and other polls of a similar nature. He doesn’t do a very good job though.

There are two secrets behind those polls. 1) They generally load the tax cut question with something like this: Would you like a tax cut or would you prefer that hospitals have enough doctors and nurses and medicine? 2) Many of the folks who respond to the pollsters tax cut questions don't pay taxes.

That’s not called a loaded question Charles, that’s called context.

The fact is, taxes pay for things, like services. People also want those services. So if you ask someone in isolation if they want a tax cut, they’ll say sure. If you ask someone in isolation if we should increase health spending, they’ll say sure. But ask someone if they’ll support cutting health spending to pay for a tax cut, or raising taxes to pay for more health spending, and you’ll get a much different question.

Asking either question in isolation would be useless. The questions as Charles laid out are entirely appropriate. Of course people favour tax cuts, the question is how important is it to them compared to other issues.

Once again, the Simpsons put it so well. This clip is from an episode where the teachers go on strike over wages. Fast-forward one minute in for a perfect illustration of the taxes vs. services debate, and the fallacy of Adler's argument.

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burlivespipe said...

He's playing the typical right-whinger's game of 'obscure the facts,' which they use constantly on things like gun control, war in Iraq and minority rights. He got giddy when the CONs launched their first attack ads and loved to mock Dion before he had a chance to even prove himself. But at least he restrains his hardon for Harpor (not!)... He's trying so hard to be Canada's version of Bill o'Rielly that its caused male pattern baldness. Last week he was so hungry to bam-bam-bam Hugo Chavez that he totally ignored the balanced comments of a BBC reporter when ever he said slightly positive things about Chavez. If it was worth my time and if the result wasn't that I had to listen to him, I"d be calling in to the Badler blowhard and remind him of his role in the war on Iraq -- like the right, he cheerleaded and incited hatred/fear until the froth semi-legitimized Bush's unlawful act. Now that it looks terrible to everyone, Badler and his cultish echo chamber are softly criticizing the Bush administration for bungling the whole thing. It's all about 'show me the money' to them.

Ti-Guy said...

They generally load the tax cut question with something like this: Would you like a tax cut or would you prefer that hospitals have enough doctors and nurses and medicine?

Aside from issue of context, does Adler indicate this particular poll loaded its questions this way?

Gayle said...

In Alberta, Klein used to word the question like:

Do you want to waste tax dollars to build unnecessary schools, or do you want to invest them in the future...

Olaf said...


Very interesting point. Sort of like "Should Canada do whatever it can to meet it's Kyoto commitments?" without providing the appropriate context, eh? Perhaps the next poll should say "should Canada meet its Kyoto commitments if YOU are personally going to lose your job as a result?" :)

Anyways, this is exactly why I reject polls based on specific issues like this, which are often utilized by the left to show that Canadian's constantly want more spending on everything (and by the right to show that we always want tax cuts), without suggesting that it would necessitate a cut elsewhere or an increase in taxes.

Leaving aside the fact (as Ti-guy rightly points out) that Adler's characterization might be crap, the problem with Adler's theoretical question, which you deem "entirely appropriate", is not that it provides innocuous "context", it's that it provides an all to specific context that attempts to set up a false zero sum game.

There's nothing that suggests if taxes are reduced, the only possible way this revenue could be recuperated is through cuts to the numbers of doctors or nurses. There are literally countless areas of provincial spending that could be cut, or other indirect taxes that could be increased.

It should also be noted that Quebec got a bonanza in cash from the feds, only some of which would go into these tax cuts, thus the question could have as easily been phrased "do you want taxes cut and more money invested into healthcare?"

And why would this tax cut makes the difference between "enough" and "not enough" doctors and nurses? I'm not sure you care to make the argument as to how many nurses and doctors are objectively "enough", even if you assumed the only place where money could be trimmed is from the number of health care professionals.

In summary, you can't write a survey question that gives only two possible outcomes, one of which is entirely unpalatable, especially when no such dichotomy exists in reality. More accurate and unbiased context would be something like "would you like a tax cut, knowing that it would provide less money for the government to spend elsewhere?"

I mean, Adler's theoretical question, which again, it's worth pointing out, you find "entirely appropriate", is akin to CanWest news conducting a poll that asked "Do you want funding to go to the Status of Women Canada, or would you prefer that Canadian hospitals continue to treat sick children?" It's equally absurd, as if funding for SWC could only possibly come from money that otherwise would have been used to treat sick children.

I'm not really sure what programs you think should receive better funding with our disastrously ultra-neo-conservative government in power, but I guarantee you, if you framed any spending increase or tax cut anywhere against having "enough doctors and nurses", it would lose.

A BCer in Toronto said...

Fair enough Olaf, and perhaps I overstated it by saying entirely appropriate.

What I think is that more nuanced questions, as opposed to the more simplistic do you like puppies type, are appropriate. And even if the questions as posed by Adler in his hypothetical are flawed, he is wrong to oppose a move towards more nuanced questions, as they do allow for a more accurate view of public opinion.

And that he's a dufus.

Olaf said...


And even if the questions as posed by Adler in his hypothetical are flawed, he is wrong to oppose a move towards more nuanced questions, as they do allow for a more accurate view of public opinion.

I'm not sure if he opposes more nuanced questions in general (eg. those that provide general context), although if the more "nuanced" poll questions are anything like the theoretical questions he's suggested, I'd say he's more than reasonable to oppose them.

It's actually an interesting question, because your reaction to Adler is about parallel to my reaction to those who attempt to show what Canadian's want (eg. new cars for everyone?) when the possible consequences/trade-offs aren't even considered.

It would be nice if someone more well versed in polling and statistics could explain to me why providing (some general) context is almost never done in polls.

All that aside, however, I must say that I'm extremely impressed with your ability to not only directly link the "tax vs. services" issue to an obscure scene in the Simpsons, but to actually find it on youtube. I especially love the random hecklers in the background, in particular the one (conservative, I assume) who wisely said "Oh yea, the taxes... the finger thing means the taxes". Indeed it does my friend, indeed it does.

A BCer in Toronto said...

I think you'll find that nearly everything in life can be linked to an episode of the Simpsons...