Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Balancing Act

I strongly agree with Matt Yglesias on his comments about deficit reduction. In fact, I'd make a stronger claim: politicians are always safe assuming that no one cares about the deficit.

First of all, to the extent that deficits matter at all, the effect is indirect and shared by everyone, but tax increases and spending cuts are direct and affect some more than others. You're always going to get more intensity on the side that has specific, visible, complaints.

But I think the more important reason is that pretty much no one understands what the deficit is. Political junkies massively overestimate the extent to which mass publics understand public policy in general, and I'm sure that the deficit is high on the list of things that most voters just don't care enough to understand the basic issue (as opposed to things such as war, torture, abortion, jobs, or health care, which at least on some level are pretty concrete).

The best example of this is the famous Town Hall presidential debate from 1992, in which President G.H.W. Bush was totally stumped by an ordinary citizen who demanded to know how the deficit affected him personally. The clip is worth watching for a bunch of reasons: for Bush as a politician in a bubble; for Bush's classic watch check, right at the start of the clip; for Bush's wacky talking style (damn, she's black...must mention AME church...oops, why am I talking about this?); for Clinton's mastery of the format; and to marvel at an America that invited a crazy guy to debate with the major party nominees for president (alas, the clip here edits out his crazy-guy comments). But it's also notable, if you go about 50 seconds in, that the ordinary citizen has no idea what she's talking about. "Deficit" for her seems to mean the recession (as the moderator guesses), or maybe the economy in general, or maybe there's something in particular that she means that we can't guess at. What it probably doesn't mean is, you know, the difference between government spending and government revenues.

People don't understand what the deficit is, and people don't care about the deficit. No politician has ever been punished for increasing the deficit, and no politician has ever been rewarded for lowering it. Directly, that is. Of course, to the extent that deficits cause economic trouble, there can be consequences for pols who help or hurt the economy. Pols also can generate positive or negative press from their actions on the federal budget, and that might matter to their electoral careers. But both of those are indirect and uncertain, and have a longer time frame than most politicians care about. For better or worse, there is very little electoral incentive to care about balancing the budget.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?