Paul Krugman has been wondering what percentage of Americans know that the deficit has been falling fast since 2009. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my father and his girlfriend about five years ago. We were talking about the government and one them said that the federal government would never balance its budget. I noted that it was possible, after all, Clinton had done it. They were stunned. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t believe me (although they didn’t); it was that they had never heard such a thing in their lives.
My point in bring this up is not to mock them. Most people don’t pay attention to politics, although if you had asked them, they would have told you they did. (They watched Fox News every day!) My point is that there is a complete disconnect between what politicians do and what the public sees. Check out this graph of the federal deficit:
The key thing to notice is that when Republicans are in the White House, the deficit goes up; when Democrats are in, the deficit go down. But what is the point of a Democrat taking the political and economic hit for all this fiscal rectitude? That brings us back to Krugman.
After Krugman discussed the issue, Hal Varian of Google put together a customer survey, and the results are not good:
The graph is a bit hard to read, but it indicates that almost 60% of respondents think the deficit has gone up. And 23% think it has stayed the same. So over 80% of respondents are dead wrong. Meanwhile, less than 9% got the question right.
Drilling down into the results, it is more or less what you would expect. Men are more likely to be wrong than women. Although surprisingly, men are also more likely to be right. Women have a strong affinity for the middle position (about the same). People over 65 are the most wrong. Although surprisingly, people between the ages of 55 and 64 are the most right. By region, people in the South are extremely ignorant even by the standards of the ignorant people who took the survey. Of them, 90% thought that the deficit had gotten bigger or stayed the same. People in the Midwest come in at 85%. The West is 80% and the Northeast is 70%. Similarly, people in urban areas are much more likely to be right. The data on incomes is a jumble, but not surprisingly, the wealthiest people are the most misinformed.
The survey is nothing like scientific. What’s more, even with its non-random sample, the error bars are huge because there are so few respondents. But it all makes sense and there is no denying that a huge majority of people think the deficit is rising fast. Part of the problem, of course, is that people are confused about the difference between debt and deficits. And news outlets don’t make the situation any better. But the bigger issue is just that there is a whole industry that pushes the “debt is killing us” line. Those pushing back are the quiet wonks.
The real problem is that liberals are almost as likely to believe this stuff as anyone else. The whole situation leads to the kind of “wise” cynicism that so defines our country’s politics. Liberals don’t defend Obama by pointing out that the deficit is decreasing. They defend him by noting that all presidents explode the debt. Except that they don’t. It is just Republicans. And that is a real problem because Democratic presidents get no credit and Republican presidents get no blame. So tell your friends: the deficit is falling!