Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Deficit Politics

Steve Benen and Matt Yglesias are stumped by poll result Benen noticed: people seem to be far more concerned about the budget deficit than about economic growth.

I absolutely agree with them that politicians should ignore those poll results. Not just because people are wrong about economics, or that it's an illogical preference, but because I think there's an excellent chance that people have basically no idea what they're talking about when they refer to a budget deficit. I've referred before to the "ordinary citizen" who stumped George H.W. Bush with a question about how the deficit affected him personally; she seemed to think that "deficit" meant the economy. Similarly, people use metaphors about balancing checkbooks, but of course balancing a checkbook (of course? do people still balance checkbooks?) has to do with knowing how much money you actually have, not about having enough money.

Yglesias says, "I assume the real issue here is that many people are explicitly rejecting the premise of the question and just think that deficit spending aimed at boosting the economy won’t actually boost the economy." That's certainly possible, but I think it's at least as possible, and actually more likely, that people think that larger deficits have a certain, direct effect on them. I don't know; maybe people believe that stuff about how everyone is going to personally have to shell out $$$ for their share of the national debt.

At any rate, for better or worse, I don't believe that any actual candidate has ever lost an election because of the budget deficit, so I'd certainly advise pols to ignore polls to the contrary.


  1. I generally agree, but would you concede that the deficit of the early 90s created a platform for Ross Perot, and that, while Clinton probably would have won without Perot in the race, that's at least an open question?

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    Nope, I would not concede that. Perot did talk about the deficit, but he wasn't serious about it (he opposed both the Bush and Clinton budgets that actually did cut the deficit, and it wasn't as if he had his own suggestions). Perot was a consequence of Bush's unpopularity, which in turn was caused by the recession, not budget deficits -- and by the tremendous respect reporters had for the size of Perot's fortune.

    The deficit created Perot in about the same way that czars created Beck.

    (I do agree with the electoral analysis -- Clinton probably wins without Perot, but we can't know for sure. Also, Perot was on his way to Anderson territory, around 10%, until Bush inexplicably put him in the debates).


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