Facts Don’t Always Backfire: The Estate Tax Edition

I’m loathe to disagree with Digby because I think a variant of the Delong Rules of Krugman also apply to her too. Digby, like others on the intertubes, is very concerned about work by Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifle, and others (covered in this Boston Globe article) which shows that:

Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

But John Sides, who himself has done some work supporting this idea, has looked at the estate tax and concludes all is not lost:

Of course, the picture isn’t always that grim. In another paper (pdf), I find that correct information about who pays the estate tax — namely, a small fraction of people, all of whom are pretty rich — increases support for the tax and it does so among primarily among people whom you might think would resist this information: conservatives and Republicans.

From the Sides paper:

Examining the causal effects of factual information in isolation is revealing but limited, as political debates mix facts with other kinds of claims. This study considers the effects of value-laden arguments and of combining factual information and such arguments. Across the two experiments, nearly every treatment and combinations thereof was associated with support for the tax. Simply providing respondents more considerations about this tax–regardless of the considerations–tended to increase support for the estate tax. Furthermore, there was little evidence that “stories trump science.” Values-based arguments were not more potent than correct information about who pays the tax. In particular, anti-tax arguments, even the “family rights” argument emphasizing the unfairness of the estate tax, did not neutralize the effects this factual information.

Another thing to remember is that what is often viewed as irrationality–cognitive quirks that make our brains do funny things–can have other explanations. In the case of deficit spending, for instance, the vast difference in opinion between economists, most of whom favor additional deficit spending, and a public that, depending how one asks the question, is luke-warm to moderately opposed to deficit spending isn’t irrational, but based on misinformation:

But deficit spending did help get us here. As I’ve discussed before, deficit spending increases aggregate private savings. Note the word aggregate. Different kinds of deficit spending will have very different effects–for some people versus others. For example, deficit spending to rebuild our infrastructure, improve our schools, and fund scientific research will provide lots of middle income jobs. On the other hand, deficit spending that provides tax breaks to wealthy individuals so they can buy crap no one needs and lowers corporate taxes to provide higher dividends (which disproportionately go to the wealthy)–what we’ve done for the last 25 years–will lead to rising income inequality….
I can’t really blame people too much for the belief that deficit reduction will restore jobs: many people have watched deficits increase due to tax cuts for the wealthy and to crony capitalism. Can you really blame them for thinking that the way to solve our economic problems is to cut deficits.

Bob Herbert echoes a similar idea:

I’m no friend of the deficit hawks, but the staggering amounts of money we’ve been spending for the past several years have not benefited the people most in need of help and have not laid the foundation for a more secure economy going forward. We’ve handed over unconscionable tax breaks to the very rich (you can see the Prada paraders high-stepping along Fifth Avenue in their million-dollar flip-flops) and countless billions to the private contractors brazenly feeding off the agony of the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Thinking deficits are bad isn’t irrational, for some people anyway, as much as it is uninformed or misinformed rationality (as oxymoronic as that sounds). That example should provide some cautious hope. As Sides notes, often, you won’t change many people’s mind. But the good news is, that in a democracy, you often don’t have to.

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1 Response to Facts Don’t Always Backfire: The Estate Tax Edition

  1. Rob says:

    Don’t cloud the issue with facts!

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