Friday, June 15, 2012

Catch of the Day

To Matt Yglesias, for something that we've seen many time before but is always worth pointing out: that, as he puts it, "only a fool would outline a credible specific plan to reduce the deficit" because Americans actually support spending more, not less, on just about everything. He explains more here.

This is all based on new numbers from Pew, which trumpets the finding that Americans really, really, really think budget deficits are important. No surprise; almost everyone who talks about this stuff on TV, certainly including the leaders of both major political parties, say that deficits are important, and when there's (rhetorical) elite consensus we would expect public opinion to reflect that.

If Pew really wants to be helpful, however, what they would do is to explore what people really think about when they say "deficit." Long-time readers will know that I'm extremely skeptical of this one; I suspect that a substantial number of voters use "deficit" as a synonym for recession, not to mean the difference between government revenues and expenditures. And that's not even taking into account "war on budgeting" Republicans, who seem to use deficit as a shorthand for government spending they don't like.

Anyway, I'd love to see someone ask some questions that would get at all of that. As far as I know, there's never been anything like that; every polling question about deficits goes in assuming that respondents know what "deficit" means in (normal) Washington policy-talk, and use it the same way. Maybe they do! That would only mean that voters are inconsistent on deficits, as they surely are about spending (liking cuts in general but not in specific areas). But I'm not altogether sure about it, and I would love to find out.

Oh, and: nice catch!


  1. Suppose you're at a restaurant, trying to decide whether to order the chicken for $10 or the steak at $20. You order the chicken - the steak just isn't worth the extra $10.

    Now suppose instead you're at the restaurant with 1000 strangers, and you're all going to share the bill. This time, you order the steak, because doing so only costs you 1 cent extra. But of course everyone else is going to order the steak too. So everyone is angry about the bill, because $20 is too much, but no-one will voluntarily renounce their steak, because doing so will only save them 1 cent, and they have no way of forcing the other diners to follow suit.

    Voters are not inconsistent on either deficits or spending. The problem is that the (broken) political mechanisms keep them trapped in a rigged game that leads to inexorably higher spending and deficits, just like the restaurant analogy above. The proof is the deficit calculator that the NYT put out a couple years ago, giving people the option to determine government spending and balance the budget (or not) in various ways. When given those options, people overwhelmingly ended up cutting government spending by more than was needed to balance the budget.

    I fundamentally disagree that public opinion is reflecting elite consensus on this issue. I think the causation is entirely the other way around.

    1. I like your analogy to the steak dinner, but I wonder if a better analogy is a squabbling family where no one is willing to make sacrifices.

      You are right that it isn't primarily the elites that put us in this situation. We have to end the blame game (optimistic thought), all take responsibility, and all make sacrifices. Who's ready? (You're not allowed to volunteer someone else.)

    2. Yes, if you load the dice by telling people that they have to make choices, they will. The Pew questions and other similar one show the inconsistency in their real opinions.

      It's not really a collective action problem (as in your steak example). This is a situation in which people's stated preferences just don't add up.

      (And by the way: it's certainly not true that the result is always-higher deficits, and I'd say that inconsistent preferences aren't driving government spending up, either; that's mostly about health care costs).

    3. "Yes, if you load the dice by telling people that they have to make choices, they will. The Pew questions and other similar one show the inconsistency in their real opinions."

      This is all about making choices! The whole point of my analogy is that there is no such thing as a "real opinion" divorced from choices and costs. Of course everyone wants to pay $10, and get the steak. And a pony. But that's not a choice, and the fact that you ask people in this way doesn't make them inconsistent, it makes your questions ill-formed.

    4. Anon,

      Sure it's about making choices. Not making a choice is a choice, and often the preferred option of the American people (otherwise called having cake and consuming it also). Childish of course, selfish as well, irresponsible certainly, even mean-spirited in some circumstances. But that's the American people for you. Throw in ignorant, stubborn, vindictive, and bad-tempered as well as unreasonable and unbelievably demanding and you have the typical attendance at everything from a school board meeting to a Presidential rally.

      You want to force the American people to make choices? Good luck with that. You say reality will force the choices sooner or later? Yes, you are right, but I would bet the mortgage on later. Everyone from liberal ACA supporters to centrist deficit hawks to conservative believers in Social Security privatization has smacked a shin on the distaste American voters have for unpleasant realities.

      Presenting deficit reduction as a game is one thing. Try to get real choices made -- that is another. Yes, it is honest to have what David Brooks has called a policy of brazen honesty with the electorate. It is also helpful to have a martyr complex, for there is no quality Americans so despise, nor any that they punish so readily, as honesty.

  2. The really interesting thing part of that survey is that, while Republicans now say they care much more about the deficit they were actually far LESS likely to rate it as a concern than Democrats or Independents in 2007.

    This is after President Bush had spent six years turning President Clinton's surplus into a deficit by:
    1. Starting a war in Afghanistan.
    2. Starting a war in Iraq.
    3. Cutting taxes for the richest.

    So how come the Republicans weren't bothered about the deficit then? It's another argument that it's not actually the deficit they're concerned about - they're worried about spending on things they don't like. The deficit is just a convenient way of pretending that they can't afford to do the things they don't want to do anyway...

  3. Of course everyone cuts government spending on a glorified computer game where the goal is to cut the deficit. But let me ask you this, if the NYT did a weight loss/fitness game and had people select how much they would diet and exercise i bet most people would pick outlandish goals-trying to look like an underwear model for example-, chose an exercise regime resembling what Christopher Reeves did to get in shape for the first Superman movie and declare they would stop eating all the junk most people eat. But this doesn't prove that American are "ready" to tackle out embarrassing obesity epidemic. It proves that when tough choices and reduced to clicks on an internet site they aren't really tough choices at all. Hence the Ryan plan, it doesn't balance the budget at all (well it might by the 2040's) and contains all sorts of Republican goals that cost a huge amount of money. So its not really about "the deficit" at all. My own favorite description of what public opinion really is was from British film maker Adam Curtis who called it a "bewildering maze of contradiction".

    Oh and can i throw in that daily caller dude yelling at the President as a "what mattered this week" thing? Yeah I know it doesn't really matter but I think it is a good example of how the crazy works and the terrible incentives that exist in the conservative movement.


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