Opinions tell us what, exactly, about policy?

From Friday:

In the [New York Times/CBS News] poll, 81 percent of respondents said they believed “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track,” up from 69 percent a year ago and 35 percent in early 2002.

Although the public mood has been darkening since the early days of the war in Iraq, it has taken a new turn for the worse in the last few months, as the economy has seemed to slip into recession. There is now nearly a national consensus that the country faces significant problems.

So fascinating, and yet, so very likely irrelevant. Having an opinion is fine, but it’s only useful if that opinion is founded on facts. If it’s based on an idea that we’re suffering partly because the government spends more than it receives, fine. If it’s based on an idea that the mortgage situation in America is partly because some borrowers risked more than they could afford, fine. But those don’t seem to be the case.

In assessing possible responses to the mortgage crisis, Americans displayed a populist streak, favoring help for individuals but not for financial institutions. A clear majority said they did not want the government to lend a hand to banks, even if the measures would help limit the depth of a recession.

How perverse does a person’s thinking have to be to decide that the warm glow of political happiness is more important than results? I’m looking very much in the direction of people laughing today at this story.

Of course, this isn’t an endorsement of what the government’s done recently. A good bit of our trouble is at least an indirect result of government policy. Artificially low interest rates aren’t a good idea. Attempts to squash a signal of imbalance possess a distinct head-in-the-sand mentality. The mortgage interest tax deduction isn’t a good idea because it distorts behavior. Perhaps that’s favorable, but maybe not. My decision to buy a house was a natural step in where I was in my life in 2005, but the potential deduction fit with my increase in income. It did not tip the decision, but I included it in my analysis.

Finally, this:

“What I learned from economics is that the market is not always going to be a happy place,” Sandi Heller, who works at the University of Colorado and is also studying for a master’s degree in business there, said in a follow-up interview. If the government steps in to help out, said Ms. Heller, 43, it could encourage banks to take more foolish risks.

“There are a million and one better ways for the government to spend that money,” she said.

This unquestioning acceptance that the government should have our money, that the only question open is how to spend it, is irrational and damaging. There is only one better way for the government to “spend” almost every dollar it spends: return them to the people who earned them. Or, in the case of the pending Free Money, don’t take out loans in our name and tell us we’re richer. And in the future, stop spending and stop taxing. Let me decide what I deem worthy of my money. I want you to do the same.

Other than those objections, this poll is useful.