The Boston Globe goes on at length about a fascinating research paper by Brendan Nyhan et al. The gist - people want affirmation, not information, and people who think they know it all really, really do not want to be vexed by facts. Brendan was a well-regarded blogger for years, so he probably tipped to these verities after about ten minutes of blog-surfing, but it is interesting to see it as the basis of an academic paper.
Enough of the bon-homie. The normal theme of this sort of paper is "those whacky conservatives!" but the Globe reporter more or less manages to keep politics out of it. However, the actual paper describes one question designed to ensnare lefties (on the Bush 'ban' on embryonic stem cell research) and two targeting righties - WMDs in Iraq and the efficacy of tax cuts. Why the assymetry? In the footnotes we learn that a fourth question inspired by Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11 was too daft for anyone, so the results were dropped. Geez, aren't there any other lefty fantasies worth testing?
The two questions for righties can be charitably described as flawed, which of course calls the conclusions of the paper into question. Let's cut to the Globe for a moment:
In 2005, amid the strident calls for better media fact-checking in the wake of the Iraq war, Michigan’s Nyhan and a colleague devised an experiment in which participants were given mock news stories, each of which contained a provably false, though nonetheless widespread, claim made by a political figure: that there were WMDs found in Iraq (there weren’t), that the Bush tax cuts increased government revenues (revenues actually fell), and that the Bush administration imposed a total ban on stem cell research (only certain federal funding was restricted). Nyhan inserted a clear, direct correction after each piece of misinformation, and then measured the study participants to see if the correction took.
For the most part, it didn’t. The participants who self-identified as conservative believed the misinformation on WMD and taxes even more strongly after being given the correction. With those two issues, the more strongly the participant cared about the topic — a factor known as salience — the stronger the backfire. The effect was slightly different on self-identified liberals: When they read corrected stories about stem cells, the corrections didn’t backfire, but the readers did still ignore the inconvenient fact that the Bush administration’s restrictions weren’t total.
And from the paper, we learn this about the WMD question:
Based on the evidence presented in the Duelfer Report, which was not directly disputed by the Bush administration, we define the belief that Saddam moved or hid WMD before the invasion as a misperception.
Do tell. Allow me to illustrate the theme of know-it-all righties (armed only with a belief in Bush and Bing) clinging to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming whinging. From the NY Times, on the Duelfer report:
Arms Move to Syria 'Unlikely,' Report Says
By DAVID E. SANGER
The Bush administration's senior weapons inspector said in a report released last night that it was ''unlikely'' that Saddam Hussein's forces moved weapons to Syria, though he expressed concern about nuclear-related equipment that was apparently removed after American-led forces invaded Iraq....
On Syria, the report said that ''no information gleaned from questioning Iraqis supported the possibility'' that weapons were moved out of the country before the invasion, which was one theory about why no unconventional weapons were found.
Mr. Duelfer reported that his group, the Iraq Survey Group, believed ''it was unlikely that an official transfer of W.M.D. material from Iraq to Syria took place. However, I.S.G. was unable to rule out unofficial movement of limited W.M.D.-related materials.''
"Unlikely"?!? "Unable to rule out"?!? Mr. Nyhan is able to rule out this possibility even though Mr. Duelfer was not? Cool, but color me Uncorrected.
The paper describes the question:
After a distracter task, subjects were then asked to read a mock news article attributed to the Associated Press that reports on a Bush campaign stop in Wilkes-Barre, PA during October 2004. The article describes Bush’s remarks as “a rousing, no-retreat defense of the Iraq war” and quotes a line from the speech he actually gave in Wilkes-Barre on the day the Duelfer Report was released (Priest and Pincus 2004): “There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks, and in the world after September the 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take.” Such wording may falsely suggest to listeners that Saddam Hussein did have WMD that he could have passed to terrorists after September 11, 2001. In the correction condition, the story then discusses the release of the Duelfer Report, which documents the lack of Iraqi WMD stockpiles or an active production program immediately prior to the US invasion.
For heaven's sake - "Such wording may falsely suggest to listeners that Saddam Hussein did have WMD"? It may accurately suggest that we didn't know and didn't want to find out the hard way.
Let's press on:
After reading the article, subjects were asked to state whether they agreed with this statement: “Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program, the ability to produce these weapons, and large stockpiles of WMD, but Saddam Hussein was able to hide or destroy these weapons right before U.S. forces arrived.” 16 Responses were measured on a five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (5).
And the footnotes include a caveat:
Again, the wording of this dependent variable reflects our definition of misperceptions as beliefs that are either provably false or contradicted by the best available evidence and consensus expert opinion. As we note earlier, it is not possible to definitely disprove the notion that Saddam had WMD and/or an active WMD program immediately prior to the U.S. invasion, but the best available evidence overwhelmingly contradicts that claim.
Well - I think that immediately before the war Iraq had active aspirations, limited ability, and may or may not have had a small stockpile which may or may not have been moved to Syria. So do I agree with the test question? I strongly disagree with "large stockpiles", weakly agree with "was able to hide"... hmm, this is a toughie. Still, I am pretty sure that any expression of agreement at all puts me in the ineducable camp, the Duelfer ambiguities notwithstanding.
In a second round of studies the question was simplified:
Immediately before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction program and large stockpiles of WMD.
With less wiggle room, conservatives did "better", and became more amenable to corrective information.
Well. That question is a model of clarity and certainty relative to the tax cut gem. From page 2 of the paper we get a sense of the impending train wreck:
The second experiment in Study 2 tests subjects’ responses to the claim that President Bush’s tax cuts stimulated so much economic growth that they actually has the effect of increasing government revenue over what it would otherwise have been. The claim, which originates in supply-side economics and was frequently made by Bush administration officials, Republican members of Congress, and conservative elites, implies that tax cuts literally pay for themselves. While such a response may be possible in extreme circumstances, the overwhelming consensus among professional economists who have studied the issue – including the 2003 Economic Report of the President and two chairs of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers – is that this claim is empirically implausible in the U.S. context (Hill 2006, Mankiw 2003, Milbank 2003).
Groan. We have two related ideas in play here. One is the famous Laffer curve, which is surely descriptive of some reality somewhere (at one time the top US personal tax rate was 90%, and it was 70% when Reagan cut it to 50%. And, although I do not have Marshall McLuhan beside me, I do have an article from Mr. Laffer:
The Laffer Curve itself does not say whether a tax cut will raise or lower revenues.
And the second idea is that tax cuts (and increased deficits) can help stimulate a weak economy. The mainstream notion would not be that we are tax-cutting our way to even higher tax revenue; the idea is that the economy will be stronger than it would be absent the stimulus provided by the tax cut.
Brendan Nyhan re-hashed this himself in an old post aimed at Gregory Mankiw, a Bush economic advisor:
During testimony before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Tuesday [Real Player video], Mankiw contradicted Bush and misrepresented the President's statements on the revenue effects of tax cuts. Under questioning from Senator Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) about opposition to his nomination from Club for Growth president Stephen Moore, Mankiw said Moore was criticizing "a passage where I had raised skepticism about claims that tax cuts would generate so much employment growth as to be completely self-financing. And I remain skeptical of those claims." Mankiw added that "the most extreme advocates of tax cuts, I think, sometimes paint an excessively rosy picture out of what they can get out of them. I don't think this administration has done that."
President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Fleischer, however, have made the exact claim that Mankiw is "skeptical of" and attributes to "the most extreme advocates of tax cuts."
And he offers some quotes.
So, with that bit of stage-setting, on to the clearly false question, from page 40 of the Appendix:
Study 2, Experiment 2 (Tax cuts): News text
[New York Times/FoxNews.com]
August 6, 2005
President George W. Bush urged Congress to make permanent the tax cuts enacted during his first term and draft legislation to bolster the Social Security program, after the lawmakers return from their August break.
“The tax relief stimulated economic vitality and growth and it has helped increase revenues to the Treasury,” Bush said in his weekly radio address. “The increased revenues and our spending restraint have led to good progress in reducing the federal deficit.”
The expanding economy is helping reduce the amount of money the U.S. government plans to borrow from July through September, the Treasury Department said on Wednesday. The government will borrow a net $59 billion in the current quarter, $44 billion less than it originally predicted, as a surge in tax revenue cut the forecast for the federal budget deficit.
The White House’s Office of Management and Budget last month forecast a $333 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, down from a record $412 billion last year.
However, even with the recent increases, revenues in 2005 will remain well below previous projections from the Congressional Budget Office. The major tax cut of 2001 and further cuts in each of the last three years were followed by an unprecedented threeyear decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003.
Last year, revenues rebounded slightly to $1.9 trillion. But at 16.3 percent of the gross domestic product, last year’s revenue total, measured against the size of the economy, was the lowest level since 1959.
Study 2, Experiment 2 (Tax cuts): Dependent variable
[The Question:] President Bush’s tax cuts have increased government revenue
Mr. Nyhan wants us to believe that the notion of self-financing tax cuts is objectively false and was not even accepted by Prof. Mankiw, Bush's top economist. Well, fine. But a dark-hearted commenter at his blog notes that income tax revenue was higher in 2004 (after the second Bush tax cut) than in 2003; by 2005, income tax revenue was higher than under the old tax regime which ended in 2001. By 2006, total tax receipts had eclipsed the bubble peak of 2000.
As to the absurd "correction" offered to wrong-thinking readers, it amounts to assurance that Bush-era revenue fell short of bubble-era projections that missed the recession and the 9/11 attacks. No kidding. And we are encouraged to believe that when asked about revenue it is a mistake to think in terms of revenue; obviously, any right-thinking righty ought to translate the numbers into revenue as a percent of GDP. Hmm.
The left-leaning CBPP has a long article from 2006 explaining why we need to look past the superficially higher revenue numbers to fully understand that revenue was actually... well, not lower, but not as high as it coulda shoulda woulda been if not for those heinous Bush tax cuts. That's as may be. My point - if it takes that much text to explain that higher revenue is really lower revenue, maybe it is not unambiguously wrong to believe that Bush's tax cuts have increased government revenue.
Since the question has no starting point, no end point (although it was asked in 2005), and no baseline (revenue increased compared to what?), and since the numbers are objectively are higher in some cases, I would say that the interpretation of this question is suspect.
As to the Backfire effect, where the correction prompts people to dig in, a footnote provides this:
Again, the raw data are compelling. The percentage of conservatives agreeing with the statement that President Bush's tax cuts have increased government revenue went from 36% to 67% (n=60). By contrast, for non-conservatives, agreement went from 31% to 28% (n=136).
My two cent guess? I would read that "correction" and think, gee, that's your best shot? A more impressive correction would have been something like, just thinking out loud here, revenue went down across all relevant periods. The reported increase from 2003 to 2004 probably raised some hopes, and the bubble peak of 2000 or 2001 would be easily discounted.
NOTE for Tax Cheats - without adjusting for inflation, the 2005 total tax revenue exceeds the 2001 tax revenue. Of course, in Aug 2005 the year-end receipts weren't available; people basing their answers on 2004 data (rather than optimistic projections of 2005) ought to have said revenue was lower in 2004 than in 2001, although it was higher than in 2003. As to what the objectively correct answer to this question is, well, who other than Mr. Nyhan can say?