Monday, August 28, 2006

I would call them cretins, but I suspect they know exactly what they are doing

An "independent" lobby group calling itself the Taxpayer Alliance has commissioned a poll with some results which the major media found bizzarely newsworthy.

The Sunday Times headline is typical: "10 million want to quit overtaxed UK." Darell Huff provides some sensible questions to ask a lying statistic, so let's have a look.

Who says so?
The Taxpayer Alliance. Do they sound unbiased to you? We all know how easy it is to skew a one-off poll by asking biased questions. Would an advocay organisation really waste money commissioning an honest opinion poll when they could get better press coverage with a push poll?

How do they know?
By asking people if they have ever considered emigrating, towards the end of a poll in which they rile them up against this country and its political institutions by asking a lot of questions about how awful politicians are. Even if the poll wasn't bad, I fully expect that a lot of people have had idle speculations about leaving the country - I know I have. 6% of the population have plans to leave the country, according to this poll. Excluding immigrants returning home, only about one third of 1% actually will in any given year. (ONS data here, see table 1.3 for outflow by citizenship)

Did someone change the subject?
Yes. 80% of the population think taxes are too high. Thank you Captain Obvious - nobody likes paying taxes, although they will happily hound you out of office if you don't give them the schools, hospitals, roads etc. that these taxes are paying for. And 6% decide to emigrate, then don't. But these facts don't have to be connected, and almost certainly aren't - most emigrants head for similarly overtaxed countries with better weather (and an awful lot of them are retired or semi-retired, so tax is less of an issue).

So the emigration figure is bogus. The other results of the poll aren't exactly newsworthy - people think that politicians are liars (wow!), that Tony Blair is a smarmy git (double wow!), and that the public services need to be more efficient (no - really?).

So why the hell does the Sunday Times consider this front-page news?

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  • At 6:04 pm , Anonymous phil said...

    There's a limit to the use of opinion polls, and that limit is at the borders of the hypothetical. You can't really know, for example, how people will vote in a general election without asking them. (Though even then, would you want to ignore the results of local elections and so on?)

    On a question like this, whyever would you try to draw conclusions by observing people's answers to a question rather than their actual behaviour, i.e. the rate at which they actually do emigrate? Not in the service of truth or rigour, that's for sure.

  • At 6:28 pm , Blogger Richard Gadsden said...

    There is another way to express the same statistic:

    People who emigrate spend an average of 18 years boring everyone else about how they're going to leave the country before they actually do.


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