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Ask a Stupid Question: Big Problem with a Recent Survey

Summary:
The share of Republicans who say presidents could operate more effectively if they did not have to worry so much about Congress and the courts increased 16 percentage points over the past year, from 27% in March 2018 to 43% this past July. So says the Pew Research Center in a recent tweet about a poll it had taken. In case you can’t see the fine print above, the people who were surveyed were given two choices and had to pick one: Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress and the courts. It would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power to deal directly with many of the country’s problems. The Pew researchers seem to think that if you believe option 1, you can’t believe

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Ask a Stupid Question: Big Problem with a Recent Survey

The share of Republicans who say presidents could operate more effectively if they did not have to worry so much about Congress and the courts increased 16 percentage points over the past year, from 27% in March 2018 to 43% this past July.

So says the Pew Research Center in a recent tweet about a poll it had taken.

In case you can’t see the fine print above, the people who were surveyed were given two choices and had to pick one:

  1. Many of the country’s problems could be dealt with more effectively if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress and the courts.
  2. It would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power to deal directly with many of the country’s problems.

The Pew researchers seem to think that if you believe option 1, you can’t believe option 2, and if you believe option 2, you can’t believe option 1. I bet many people are like me in that they believe both options. That is, the problems could be dealt with more effectively if U.S. presidents weren’t so constrained by Congress and the courts and giving the U.S. president that power would be too risky.

I’ve often argued that the advantage of the Parliamentary system that I grew up with in Canada is that the government can solve a problem more quickly and that the disadvantage is that it can create problems more quickly. As an example of the former, look at the Liberal Party’s and later Conservative Party’s tremendous success at reducing Canada’s federal debt as a percentage of GDP.

My mother had a saying that I’m sure others have heard: “Ask a stupid question; get a stupid answer.”

Now, I bet the Pew researchers are right to think that there’s a high positive correlation between the belief that unconstrained U.S. presidents can deal with problems more effectively and the belief that U.S. presidents should be given such powers.

But why assume? A better methodology would be for the researchers to ask the following question.

Should U.S. presidents, whether Republican or Democrat, be:

More constrained by Congress and the courts than they are now?

Less constrained by Congress and the courts than they are now?

Constrained by Congress and the courts to the same extent they are now?

David Henderson
David Henderson is a British economist. He was the Head of the Economics and Statistics Department at the OECD in 1984–1992. Before that he worked as an academic economist in Britain, first at Oxford (Fellow of Lincoln College) and later at University College London (Professor of Economics, 1975–1983); as a British civil servant (first as an Economic Advisor in HM Treasury, and later as Chief Economist in the Ministry of Aviation); and as a staff member of the World Bank (1969–1975). In 1985 he gave the BBC Reith Lectures, which were published in the book Innocence and Design: The Influence of Economic Ideas on Policy (Blackwell, 1986).

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