The rise of individual provision polls

Mason Herron Contributor
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As the debate over the stimulus and health care reform bills continue, there has been an increase in analysis that cites certain “individual provision” polls — surveys that ask respondents to rate their support of pieces of legislation, rather than the legislation as a whole.

These sorts of polls often aim to promote a narrative: even though Americans say they dislike these bills as a whole, the truth is that they actually support them. To illustrate this, the “individual provision” polls point out the fact that while a majority of America is against the respective bills, they are ultimately supportive of these bills’ individual provisions.

For instance, a recent poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 49% of the public believes that parts of the Patient Protection and Affordable Act or the entire act should be repealed. Nonetheless, majorities supported individual provisions such as tax credits to small businesses that provide employee health coverage, prohibiting disqualification based on pre-existing conditions, closing the Medicare “donut hole,” and subsidies for low-income Americans.

Meanwhile, Annie Lowrey of Slate mockingly writes that, while the typical American voter does not currently approve of the stimulus, “she likes virtually all of the elements of stimulus, such as the tax breaks, unemployment insurance, infrastructure investment, and bolstered food stamps — a case of the parts besting the sum, apparently. And she thinks the country needs more of those provisions.”

Progressive commentators routinely pounce on this sort of analysis and use the results as evidence that the progressives’ support for the stimulus and health care reform were sensible, while opposition was the result of ignorance. See, look at what these polls say: Americans really are nincompoops incapable of figuring out what they want or what’s best for them.

Well, not quite.

To provide context, the justification as to why economics exists as a field of study is simple: scarcity. If there weren’t shortages of things we liked, well, we wouldn’t really need a government to tell us who gets what, and when. But, alas, we live in a world with no free lunches, meaning that things — food, jewelry, large legislative proposals — all have costs.

Ask anyone if he or she would like a large flat-screen television at no cost and they’ll undoubtedly say yes. Ask them if they would like that same TV in exchange for $1,000 and they won’t be so quick to embrace the idea. This is an apt analogy for how Americans view the stimulus and health care bills. Americans may like the bills’ individual provisions, but once they see their price tags, they say, “I don’t know if it’s worth the cost.”

The flaw of the individual provision polls is that they don’t explain the actual cost of each provision, meaning respondents are provided with only half the picture. Ultimately, those polled are essentially saying that they support those provisions only in principle — it’s a philosophical inquiry, not a policy one.

The phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” also applies here. While each provision viewed in isolation might draw majority support, the thousands of provisions that the bills contain operating together paint a far different picture — a picture that shows the federal government drastically expanding its reach and doing so at a high cost.

Although individual provision polls attempt to portray a sort of cognitive dissonance within the American public and an electorate conflicted with itself, all they ultimately reveal is the limitations of polling on such complex legislation.

Mason Herron is a political writer living in the New York City area. His work has appeared on ConservativeHomeUSA, FrumForum, as well as in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Harrisburg Patriot-News.