Because the public affirms the general value of a clean environment and is not engaged in specific policy choices, the wording and timing of questions that ask people to engage in specific policy choices can be extraordinarily important. Four questions asked by CBS and the New York Times in 1992 and early 1993 illustrate the point. The public switched its view from May to September about whether protecting the environment was more important than stimulating the economy. Negative coverage of the economy in the fall of 1992 was making people more anxious about economic prospects, and that atmosphere probably explained the shift in responses.
The second pair of questions was asked in September 1992 and in March 1993. People were asked whether we must protect the environment even if it means jobs in your community are lost because of it. The public split evenly in September, 45 to 45 percent; in March 1993, 60 percent agreed with the statement. Had people changed their minds about anything related to the environment over the ten months those four questions were asked? Of course not. An election campaign took place, and a new president was inaugurated. The political context in which the questions were asked shifted from negative coverage of the economy to more positive coverage of a new president. Americans use polls to send messages to their governors—to indicate subtle changes in moods, as they did over these ten months.
When a value such as the importance of the environment occupies a substantial position in public thinking opinion researchers need to take care not to attribute specific conclusions to it mistakenly. Consider the familiar question about whether we are spending too little, too much or the right amount on the environment. The National Opinion Research Center has asked Americans that question nineteen times over the past twenty years. Strong majorities have consistently told the pollsters that we are spending too little. The proportion saying we are spending too much is always small. policy-makers should not read these responses literally. They are expressions of a broad general commitment to a clean environment, not an endorsement of higher spending.
Public thinking about what spending is actually needed today is more complex. Americans say we are spending too little on many problems, and it appears from some questions that they think we can move a little more slowly in the environmental area. In January 1995, 53 percent of Americans told Yankelovich Partners that "given our other problems right now," it would be better to go slow in spending money to cleanup the environment. Still 40 percent said we should go full speed ahead.
It is striking how few questions over the past twenty years have asked Americans to think about their tax burden when thinking about federal spending on the environment. In surveys conducted by General Electric from 1966 to 1981, people