Popularism and the Child Tax Credit

Yves here. I am deeply prejudiced against popularism because that the chief tool Marcie Frost is using to run CalPERS into the ground. Poll like crazy to find out what people want to hear, tell them what they want to hear, and rely on them not paying attention to what you are doing (which at CalPERS is staff rather than beneficiary-serving).

In the details of the discussion below, Matt Bruenig correctly points out how Daniel Shor tries to make out that the difference between 49% and 53% in a poll response is a big deal in deciding on policy. Aside from the fact that this was a “down the menu” choice (you’ve decided on a burger, now you are deciding on whether to have it with bacon or cheese), yet another reason for questioning it is that poll results are very much dependent on how questions are phrased and ordered. Experts in the dark arts of surveys can easily move results by ten points by the structuring of a poll.

By Matt Bruenig, a lawyer, policy analyst, and founder of the People’s Policy Project. Originally published at his website

Ezra Klein did a piece last week about David Shor and so-called “popularism,” which was ultimately defined this way:

Democrats should do a lot of polling to figure out which of their views are popular and which are not popular, and then they should talk about the popular stuff and shut up about the unpopular stuff.

I thought Ezra did a good job with the piece and I left the piece mostly unshaken in my views about what messaging wins elections, which are ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

It’s an important topic that reminds me of a similar debate about what unions need to do to reinvigorate the labor movement. Winning elections and reinvigorating the labor movement are critical to social democracy. Both are hard to do. Both have a bunch of self-styled gurus claiming to know the secret sauce. And yet, after reading a ton of words about both, I really don’t know the answer and I am pretty skeptical of those that say they do.

Not too long ago, we were being told that Barack Obama had revolutionized the election messaging game by using “big data” to microtarget voters. Under the microtargeting theory, you don’t choose between message one and message two. Rather, you deliver message one to people who like to hear message one and deliver message two to people who like to hear message two. In a world with tons of data about every individual, this is something you can conceivably do, or so the story goes.

The microtargeting stuff seemed to fall out of fashion after the 2016 election, perhaps because Hillary Clinton used it and lost. Or perhaps because the nature of messaging talk is that it waxes and wanes over time. Whatever the reason, there seems to be a market for new things now, and so “popularism” has entered the game.

CTC Confusion

Although I don’t have much to say about the theory of “popularism,” I have recently had a run-in with its theoretician, the man himself, David Shor. In general, I am fond of Shor even if I am not so sure about the whole genre of election messaging theories. He got fired for some bullshit and he’s good with numbers. What’s not to like? Well, his opinion on the Child Tax Credit for one.

At Yglesias’s Slow Boring newsletter, Shor argued that the Democrats should create a stricter income test for the monthly Child Tax Credit in order to make the benefit permanent. If we put aside certain policy confusions contained in the piece, the argument is fairly simple: if we have a fixed pot of money to work with, it would be better to use that money to make the CTC permanent (rather than just extending it a few years) instead of using that money to keep the benefit nearly universal, which it currently is.

From a popularism perspective, the whole piece is very confusing.

For starters, popularism is supposed to be about what you say not what you do. Popularism does not tell us to do popular things and not do unpopular things. It tells us to talk about popular things and not talk about unpopular things, all while doing whatever we want. In this sense, issue polling, no matter how scrupulously done, is simply irrelevant to the question at hand since the question is about policy and not about messaging.

But even if you allow popularism to inform policy decisions, in this case, it seems like it would have reached the opposite conclusion than the one Shor did.

In the piece, Shor says that a fully universal CTC polls at 49% while a CTC that phases out at $50k of income polls at 53% (4 points higher!). Normal people might look at these numbers and conclude that it doesn’t seem to matter very much whether you make the benefit universal or have a strict income test. But Shor knows better:

The CTC with no income threshold — meaning it’s not means-tested at all — ranks in the 21st percentile of the nearly 200 issues Blue Rose Research has polled. Targeting the expanded CTC only to households making less than $50,000, however, ranks in the 60th percentile. That’s the difference between an issue Democrats will face attacks on and one they can feel comfortable talking about.

With all due respect, this is one of the dumbest paragraphs that I’ve ever read in my life. It sounds sophisticated, but it makes absolutely no sense.

All Shor is saying here is that, of the 200 or so issues he polled, about 78 (or 39%) of them polled somewhere between 49% and 53% support. That’s seriously it. No more data-wizardry is going on than that.

He makes this out to be a big deal, but the claim “the difference between 49% and 53% is pretty small” is absolutely not refuted by saying “39% of all the issues I polled came in between those two numbers.” These two things have nothing to do with one another!

Furthermore, the percentage of policies that fall between 49% and 53% support is entirely dependent on what policies you choose to poll. I can think of hundreds of policies that would poll outside of that range (e.g. legalizing murder), which were not polled. In the total universe of all possible policies, the difference between 49% and 53% is definitely not 39 percentiles, and 49% support is definitely not sitting at the 21st percentile.

If we included way more policies into the data set, the percentage of policies polling between 49% and 53% would shrink dramatically, which by Shor’s own logic would make this 4 point gap fairly insignificant (but also remember here that the logic is trash).

Put simply, the observation that a lot of the issues Shor chose to poll hover around 50% support does not generate the conclusion that the difference between 49% and 53% is big when we are talking about the effect that a single detail of a single policy will have on elections and election messaging.

Believe it or not, it actually gets even crazier than all this. Remember from above that Shor is saying we should give up making the CTC nearly universal in favor of making it permanent. Yet, in his piece, he makes no mention of how making the program permanent polls. I don’t pretend to know what the deep-down real number is for that question, but plenty of polls have it way underwater, such as this recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, which says that only 35 percent of Americans favor a permanent CTC benefit.

So near-universality polls at 49 percent while permanence polls at 35 percent and thus popularism tells us to … sacrifice the more popular thing in order to achieve the less popular thing? Huh?

Of course, pointing out that Shor seems to have gone way off the script on this issue doesn’t disprove “popularism,” which is a theory that stands alone from its chief theoretician. But Shor should perhaps take a lesson from his own book and be careful about what kinds of things he associates with the term. If the term becomes associated with shoddy policy prescriptions that overstep the bounds of what the theory is even about (election messaging) and don’t even really follow from the data available, then popularism may become unpopular among the audience it is trying to reach.

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  1. Sound of the Suburbs

    I am a politician, and I need to get elected.
    Why don’t they do what the people (electorate) want?

    The populists rise when the status quo is failing.
    The electorate are just looking for someone who might get things working again.

    Obama offered “Hope and Change”.
    Let’s vote for him.
    He didn’t fix anything.

    Who is promising to fix things now?
    Trump; Hillary is trying to pretend everything is OK, but it isn’t.

    Trump didn’t deliver the goods either.
    We need to teach him a lesson.

    The search continues for someone who can fix anything.
    Just saying what you think they want to hear isn’t enough.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I thought a Child Tax Credit a strange way to distribute money for children until I realized that as you are doing it through taxation, that this would be the way to “means test” any payments. Of course a better system might be to at birth issue each child not only their Social Security number but also a linked, fee-free bank account operated through the US Treasury. That way, during any future pandemics or the like, money can be automatically deposited into each person’s account as needed. And every citizen would be banked. But as that would bypass any means testing or bureaucratic fiddling or requiring banks to distribute these funds and thus enabling them to take a cut of all that money, that is precisely why it would never be done.

  3. Pelham

    Two points:

    1) Popularism sounds like another word for lying.;

    2) As for the popularity of means-testing the child tax credit, a fairly constructed poll question might go something like this: Should the CTC be available to every family with children or should we construct a bureaucracy that would routinely humiliate recipients and routinely deny the credit to needy families?

    1. chuck roast

      Lying…now that is kind of harsh. I think describing it as bullshit artistry would be more appropriate. BS artists rely on the con, and this fellow seems to have carved himself out a very nice grifting niche. Think of Marginalism as the Austrians would have it…49%, 53%…this is territory for the deep dive and better yet, persistent swim in the professional academic poop of Public Affairs. They killed the Ptolemaic Theory faster than you can disprove this nonsense…kind of like Robin DiAngelo. A superior BS artist is a totally American thing, and you must give these creatures their due. I predict a long and successful career. Not exactly Charles A. Murray, but golden by the standards of the PMC.

  4. Matthew G. Saroff

    The subtext of this is that with means testing, you have to employ case managers, investigators, administrative law judges, etc.

    The one way to describe these college educated drones is as members of the professional–managerial class (PMC). Another way to describe these folks is as Clinton (Bill and Hillary) voters.

  5. Pelham

    I just finished reading the Shor piece mentioned and I take his point but think there’s ground for disagreement. My own prescription would avoid the deceptions of popularism by simply decoupling mainly cultural issues from mainly economic issues. It’s the “progressive” stance on cultural matters that actively turns away many voters and may cause them to reject appealing progressive ideas on economic matters through a kind of guilt by association.

    For instance, if a certain candidate pairs a plan to confiscate everyone’s AR-15s with plans for single-payer healthcare, the former position may poison the latter in many gun-owning voters’ minds. The perceived, actionable threat outweighs the remote, pie-in-the-sky promise. Why is there no space in US politics for, say, a politician who stands up for the 2nd Amendment while also advocating universal healthcare? Or why can’t we have a field of candidates who call for abortion to be far more restricted or believe that gender is a matter of chromosomes and not choice but also favor a universal basic income and a much more aggressive drive to address climate change? Expanding the party’s tent to take in a viable stable of culturally conservative candidates who also advocate for real material benefits could widen the party’s appeal and win over voters who may currently be skeptical of left-leaning economics.

    The Democratic Party’s problem, I believe, is not a matter of deceptive or misguided messaging but rather a matter of not offering a more cognitively diverse mix of candidates. As matters stand, however, the party appears to reject anyone who doesn’t toe the line on a confusing and ever-changing array of prickly cultural topics while being much more open to GOP-lite candidates when it comes to economic issues.

    Then again, maybe this isn’t a problem in the eyes of the leadership.

    1. Hazel Down

      Means testing is vicious and evil (feature, not a bug). It is also tremendously unpopular with actual people. I live in the south and do shipping/receiving work for the most part. It seems to be most of my ‘deplorable’ neighbors (meaning working class) would be fine with the government giving people money but they’re never sufficiently poor.
      So they start thinking the government wants them to be poor.
      I don’t have kids. I’m 51. Prolly not going to. I still have to eat and pay the bank rent for ‘my’ house.
      All I want to do is launch satellites and create self burning cars. I thought the government was in charge of funding these dreams?

  6. WhatdoIknow

    we make more than $200k/year in income and in July received a nice letter from the White House signed by our president informing us that we will receive $170/month in child credit and its deposited monthly on our account since. I am not against government help but public money should be targeted where its needed.
    Has out government become so bloated that they cant even figure out who really needs help and they just send money to everyone instead? Or is $200k the new poverty level?
    We saw this already during the pandemic sending checks to people who didnt lose any income.
    This wouldnt have been possible without the Fed direct financing by printing money and I dont think will change until Fed decides to change course.

    1. John Zelnicker

      October 11, 2021 at 11:39 am

      I’m glad you’re in a position so that you don’t need the extra income.

      There are, however, plenty of folks in your income range that do need the extra income because they live in high cost-of-living areas or, perhaps have more children than you.

      You might consider not extrapolating your situation to others,

      The bottom line benefit for the economy is that there are more dollars circulating which is going to increase aggregate demand, which is what makes the economy grow (along with other factors).

      1. WhatdoIknow

        not saying i dont need extra income, who doesn’t. But the extent of waste by the government is beyond imagination. Case in point, friend of mine has a construction company, employs about 20 people, business never been better throughout the pandemic. Received $440k in loans that was already forgiven. Now got another $580k loan, not forgiven yet but he thinks it will be as he uses it for payroll. The money he saves on the payroll is used to buy real estate.
        He told me he absolutely didnt need the money but was almost forced on him by his bank.
        It was a free gift in his words. Multiply this situation all over the country and you get the picture.

        1. Felix_47

          How about the government manage what it has without a new program? There are billions to manage and billions to save. If the child care benefit is so important how about the government cancel a couple of F35s. This is buying votes from poor people. With six kids we had child care issues and between the two of us and enough to pay nannies a decent wage with health insurance we got through. This child care thing is outrageous. I am not opposed to giving every mother the money but putting it through a politically connected bureaucracy of day care owners is insane. And paying for child care so a poor mother can go to work at McDonalds while her kids are in child care is ridiculous. Just pay mothers a decent wage to stay home and take care of their kids. The government could even contribute to their social security during this period. This will end up as useless as the public school bureaucracy. And I need to point out that my kids basically were home schooled. The major beneficiaries of this program….women with a lot of kids and very low income are exactly the women who get no child support. We could also federalize the child support system for poor men. They dont pay support to any degree now and 17 percent of them do prison time as a consequence. It is unreasonable to expect them to pay child support which a mother would need to pay for child care. But the government providing child care? If money is the problem given them money directly and cut out the middle man. And this could be done simply with tax policy.

    2. marym

      Figuring out means tested eligibility may require more government bloat than sending a check to everyone.

      For recipients means testing is time consuming or impossible (need for internet, for example), sometimes close to impossible to navigate(for people who’s income varies for reasons beyond their control, for example), and humiliating in the questions and assumptions built into the criteria.

      US culture is deeply committed to the notion that higher income and wealthy people deserve and deserve to keep everything they have — even if it came in part from exploiting workers, polluting the environment, tax loopholes favoring their type of income, or inheritance. It’s unreasonable to argue that the one thing they don’t deserve is something that would be theirs as a minor consequence of helping everyone else.

      It’s also ingrained in US culture that higher income and wealthy people contribute greatly to the economy through job-creating investments and consumption, and charitable contributions. So, if they receive a check they don’t need they’re welcome to invest, consume, or contribute. We all do well when we all do well.

      1. Don W.

        The way I think about means testing is that if the government gives a fixed amount of money to everyone via some program, it is the equivalent of making the tax system more progressive. So, if we think a fixed amount tax credit or other program is not progressive enough, I would go with making the tax system generally more progressive over means testing every individual program. Universal programs are generally harder to attack, as well.

  7. Hazel Down

    Means testing is vicious and evil (feature, not a bug). It is also tremendously unpopular with actual people. I live in the south and do shipping/receiving work for the most part. It seems to be most of my ‘deplorable’ neighbors (meaning working class) would be fine with the government giving people money but they’re never sufficiently poor.
    So they start thinking the government wants them to be poor.
    I don’t have kids. I’m 51. Prolly not going to. I still have to eat and pay the bank rent for ‘my’ house.
    All I want to do is launch satellites and create self burning cars. I thought the government was in charge of funding these dreams?

    1. p. fitzsimon

      Means testing is good for tax preparation and tax software vendors. I volunteered recently as a tax aide and found out how complicated tax preparation is for even the lowest of income folks. Between, the child tax credits, the earned income credits, obamacare qualification and other welfare items that get stuffed into the tax code you need good software and time to get benefits for our low income brethren.

  8. drumlin woodchuckles

    Perhaps Mr. Shor himself supports the concept of a permanent means-tested CTC and is emitting a bullshit-fog of numbers in hopes of fooling readers into thinking that supporting the permanent means-tested CTC is more politically beneficial to the people supporting it.

    Perhaps he is just trying to con readers into accepting a fake line of fake reasoning to support the thing that he actually wants supported for reasons internal to his own mind.

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