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Stricter business controls sought

Times Staff Writer

Ian Bagley thinks he pays too many taxes, says welfare rolls need to be reduced and believes the private sector usually does a better job than the public sector.

But after watching the housing market collapse and the stock market tank, the civil engineer from Kenosha, Wis., now believes there is not enough government regulation of the economy.

A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg national poll shows Bagley is far from alone. The survey found that nearly three-quarters of respondents thought the lack of regulation was partly responsible for the current financial and housing crises. The need for stronger regulation of financial markets was cited most as the top issue for the presidential candidates to address in the remaining weeks of the campaign.

And nearly half of those surveyed now think there is too little regulation of business.

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“I always thought the least amount of government in people’s lives, the better,” said Bagley, 29, a poll respondent who was contacted in a follow-up interview. “But now you see what happens when you take it to the extreme.”

The findings underscore deep concern in the nation’s economy.

Nine out of 10 polled said the economy was doing badly. More than three-quarters said the country was facing a crisis, and more than half worried that the downturn would threaten their household’s financial security.

Questions about what role government should play in preventing the crisis have moved to the forefront three weeks before Americans pick their new president and as the details of a $700-billion federal rescue plan to shore up the nation’s financial system begin to unfold.

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At least 70% of respondents in each of a wide range of demographic categories blame the absence of more regulation for the nation’s economic troubles.

Asked to choose which of six economic issues was most important for Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to address in their campaigns, respondents cited bolstering regulation most frequently -- roughly twice as often as they mentioned taxes, housing foreclosures and unemployment.

Overall, 45% of respondents said there was too little regulation in business; 27% said there was too much.

This was not always the case. L.A. Times polls conducted in 1991 and 1981 -- both times of economic unease -- found that only 29% and 18%, respectively, thought there was too little regulation of business and industry.

But the scope of the recent turmoil and decades of deregulation in Washington have probably contributed to reversing those attitudes.

“People are now seeing what happens when nothing is done,” said Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus.

The survey of 1,543 adults was taken Friday through Monday and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Among those who called for new regulations were 58% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans, along with 48% of those who live in households earning $100,000 or more a year and 48% of those with household incomes of $40,000 or less a year.

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Asked if the government should provide assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure, 61% said they were in favor and 27% opposed such a measure. Only three months ago, a Times/Bloomberg poll found 55% supported government assistance and 36% opposed it.

“This never should have happened,” said Rita Lopez, 73, a retiree in Denver. “A little more regulation and this wouldn’t have been such a big thing.”

The financial maelstrom could have been prevented, Lopez said, with a little common sense on the part of home buyers and lawmakers.

Lopez, who grew up as one of six children in rural Nebraska, said she learned early in life to live within her means. She and her husband have started buying necessities like toilet paper in bulk to save money. She has even resisted buying her favorite margarine at the grocery store after its price rose 50 cents.

Now Lopez’s daughter is trying to sell her home in Denver, but she’s finding the task difficult in a depressed real estate market. The dour economic outlook has raised anxiety in the Lopez family, as it has for many American households.

The 90% of Americans who said the economy was doing badly was the highest such figure since the Times Poll started asking the question in 1997. The previous high was 82%, registered in June.

The all-time low came in a January 1999 poll in which only 8% of people thought the economy was doing badly and 89% thought it was doing well. Then the technology bubble burst and about half of Americans began souring on the economy over the following years, polls showed.

While many more Americans appear to be willing to entrust the government with greater regulatory power, the poll found mixed support for the $700-billion relief package.

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Asked if Congress did the right thing in passing the legislation, 44% said yes and 37% said no. The opinion was different depending on wealth. Fifty-seven percent of respondents with household incomes of $100,000 or more a year favored the bill. By comparison, 43% of those with household incomes of $40,000 or less annually supported the package.

Only 5% of Americans were very confident the bill would stabilize the market and keep the economy from getting worse. Thirty-nine percent were somewhat confident, 29% were not too confident and 19% were not confident at all.

“I think taking $700 billion to help the economy is not a bad idea,” said Craig Cohen, 55, an insurance salesman from Encino. “I just think the money is going to the wrong place. A lot should go to more local banks so they have money to offer credit.

“It shouldn’t go to bailing out CEOs and places like AIG where they take a nice little vacation on us and get expensive massages,” Cohen said. “I wish I could do that.”

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david.pierson@latimes.com

Times Poll Associate Director Jill Darling contributed to this article.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

It’s the economy

Americans are very pessimistic about the economy, according to a new Times/Bloomberg poll.

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Q: Thinking about the country’s financial situation, is it facing...

A serious economic crisis: 77%

A problem but not a crisis: 20%

Not much of a problem at all: 2%

Don’t know: 1%

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Q: Did lawmakers do the right thing or the wrong thing in passing a bill authorizing up to $700 billion to help stabilize financial markets?

Right thing: 44%

Wrong thing: 37%

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Q: How confident are you that the financial package will stabilize the market and keep the economy from getting worse?

Very confident: 5%

Somewhat confident: 39%

Not too confident: 29%

Not confident at all: 19%

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Q: Do you favor or oppose the federal government providing assistance to individual homeowners who are facing foreclosure?

Favor: 61%

Oppose: 27%

Don’t know: 12%

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How the poll was conducted: The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll contacted 1,543 adults nationwide by telephone Friday through Monday. Telephone numbers were chosen randomly in separate samples of landline and cellphone exchanges in the nation, allowing listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted, and multiple attempts were made to contact each number. Cellphone exchanges were hand-dialed. The cell and landline samples were combined and adjusted for sample size and non-response. Adults in the combined sample were adjusted to the most recent estimates from the National Health Interview Survey for household phone types and to census proportions of sex, ethnicity, age, education and national region. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. For smaller subgroups, the error margin may be higher. Survey results may also be affected by combining samples and by factors such as question wording and the order in which they are asked. Interviews were conducted by Interviewing Service of America Inc. of Van Nuys.

Note: Results may not add to 100% when some answer categories are not shown. For complete wording and further results, visit https://latimes.com/timespoll


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