Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Your Cheneyesque Plain Blogger

Andrew Sullivan wasn't thrilled with my recent post on the federal employee pay freeze:
Bernstein thinks the freeze will backfire politically, and adds this Cheneyesque remark:
Hardly anyone actually cares about budget deficits, and one group of people—federal employees (and their families, and perhaps their friends) do care intensely about federal employee pay.
That's presumably a reference to Dick Cheney's claim that deficits don't matter, not to his defense of torture and presidential (and vice-presidential) lawlessness -- so I think E.D. Kain is perhaps a bit over the top in citing Sullivan for a Malkin Award nomination.  Unless Sullivan meant that I'm well on the path to being a war criminal, but I really don't think that's the case. 

Still, I suppose a bit of clarification is in order.  I don't really know the context in which Cheney said that deficits don't matter, but if he was talking about the direct effects of deficits on electoral politics, then he was absolutely correct.  Yes, there are a few honest deficit hawks at the elite level (Sullivan most certainly included), but I'm comfortable with saying that "hardly anyone" at the mass level cares about budget deficits. 

Yes, the deficit will show up in polls once in a while.  I very much doubt that those polls are meaningful.  First of all, as always I'll refer everyone back to the famous town hall style debate way back in 1992 between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, in which someone asked about the "deficit" despite clearly meaning "the economy."  Until I see evidence to the contrary, I'll assume that most people have no idea what "deficit" means.  Moreover, even if those who show up on polls really mean the federal budget deficit and not some general notion of the economy or jobs, I very much doubt that it's a voting issue even for them. 

At any rate, I'm not speaking at all in that post about my personal views of whether deficits are good or bad; I'm talking about my understanding of the public opinion data about deficits, combined with a sense of how elections work.  As it happens (and as I've said), I'm not a deficit dove at all, so I certainly do come down on the other side of Sullivan on the substance of this one.  But my analysis of the data and the situation isn't driven by my position on the issue, on this or anything else.


  1. Well, I *am* a deficit dove, and I didn't take your position to mean anything other than the pure political science it is.

    People CLAIM all sorts of things that Beltway-types want to hear out of them. But they don't actually ACT on these beliefs.

    Andrew Sullivan, meet response bias. Response bias, Andrew Sullivan.

  2. I found Sullivan's assessment quite odd for the following reason: you were describing a specific case of the universal problem of special interests in a multiparty democracy. That's not "Cheneyesque"; its basic political science.

    As an example, does anyone honestly disagree that wasteful farm subsidies persist for any reason other than that the farmers who receive them care a lot more about their continuation than any individual among the larger rest of us is opposed? This is the essence of your argument, similar to the collective action argument in the Palin thread below.

    Big fan of Sullivan - but pretty gobsmacked that he seems to think "individual/collective" misalignment in a democracy arises as a result of Dark Lord-type scheming.

  3. Do you have a man-sized safe in your house?

  4. deficits don't matter politically only if one chooses to ignore what Ross Perot did to Geo HW Bush's re-election in 1992. The guy pretty much ran a single issue campaign - deficits - and managed to completely dictate the course of that election. i've always found it interesting that everyone just casually accepts the Cheneyesque "deficits don't matter" without bothering to bring up Perot. In 1992 at least, deficits DID matter

  5. The quote "Reagan proved deficits don't matter," attributed to Cheney, appears on p.291 of Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty: George W Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill. Parts of the book are on Google Books, & p.291 is omitted. The context was a meeting in Cheney's office in Nov 2002, shortly after the midterm elections, on the topic of Economic Growth, where Cheney was pushing for what became the 2003 Bush tax cuts.


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