On Saturday, after putting the finishing touches on “Something Crazy In The Air (Fried Egg),” I took a quick virtual stroll over to Pew to see how public opinion has evolved vis-à-vis the deficit.
Admittedly, I could have conducted a more extensive search, but what I turned up on a quick scan sufficed. The latest article from Pew when you filter for “government spending and the deficit” is dated August 13, two weeks after benefits from the massive virus relief package passed by Congress during the early days of the pandemic began to lapse.
The data cited in the piece was collected in June, when the economy was bouncing back, but still reeling from the largest hit since the Great Depression. At the time, just 47% of adults said the deficit was “a very big problem.” That was down eight percentage points from September of 2018, a period over which the deficit obviously ballooned.
Of course, you can make that red line look as dramatic or as boring as you like simply by adjusting the axis on which the Pew data is plotted. Clearly, had I made the minimum 10 or 20 instead of 44, the decline would appear less meaningful.
But it’s not about the absolute numbers. The number of Americans concerned about the deficit should be 0% given that deficits are basically meaningless for currency-issuing, advanced economies with sufficient monetary sovereignty. Rather, what’s notable is the decline in concern despite the larger shortfalls.
The June data was surely skewed by the “no atheists in foxholes” phenomenon. When the world is falling apart, the percentage of those who care about government red ink is likely to be lower. If you can’t afford to put food on the table or pay the mortgage, you generally don’t care about the gap between government revenue and outlays. All you care about is that your fixed costs remain, despite your revenue having collapsed into a pestilent abyss.
But Pew’s breakdown of the data reveals just how pernicious this myth really is. Consider that, as Pew wrote in August,
The deficit landed roughly in the middle of the pack among the 10 issues asked about in the June survey. The share of adults calling it a very big problem was higher than the share saying the same about climate change (40%) or illegal immigration (28%), but lower than the shares who called ethics in government and the pandemic very big problems (63% and 58%, respectively).
So, amid a pandemic which, by that time, had already decimated the US economy and killed scores of Americans, the deficit wasn’t all that far behind COVID-19 (relatively speaking, when you consider that 2020’s headlines were dominated by pandemic coverage) when it comes to what American adults considered to be “very big problems.”
Take a moment to wrap your head around that, if you can.
The partisan breakdown is astounding, especially in retrospect — i.e., with the US death toll from the pandemic near 350,000. In the survey, conducted from June 16 through June 22, just 37% of Republicans said the coronavirus was “a very big problem” in America. That figure (i.e., for GOP voters) was 49% for the deficit. That’s ludicrous. And it speaks to an almost pathological refusal to engage with reality. Similarly, just 13% of Republicans said climate change was a very big problem — 36 percentage points lower than the deficit.
There is some nuance. “For the most part, partisan differences are over the severity of these problems,” Pew was keen to note, adding that “large majorities in both parties — 95% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents and 72% of Republicans and Republican leaners — agree the coronavirus outbreak is either a very big or moderately big problem for the country.”
So, it’s not that Republican voters were totally oblivious, they just thought “moderate” was a better adjective when it came to describing the severity of the problem posed by a raging pandemic which, even by June, had established itself as the worst public health crisis in a century.
But the point here isn’t to lampoon Republicans for their propensity to put themselves on the wrong side of history (see the figure above). Rather, the point is that, of the five issues included in the chart, there’s bipartisan consensus in terms of the percentage of voters who see a “very big problem” on just one: The deficit.
And of the five problems shown in the figure, that is the only one that, in reality, isn’t really a problem.
“Older people and Republicans are more likely to call the deficit a very big problem, while Democrats — especially liberal Democrats — are less likely to do so,” Pew wrote, before observing that, insanely, “there are few or no differences among people of different education or income levels.”
That would suggest that unlike many other vexing issues facing the country, “education” (and the scare quotes are there for a reason) isn’t producing more nuanced, informed viewpoints when it comes to government finance.
That’s hardly surprising given the pushback among mainstream economists to viewing the world through an MMT lens. But it’s disconcerting nevertheless, because it means we can’t count on the education system to improve public awareness.
That leaves few avenues down which people can travel to pursue a better understanding of the situation. It doesn’t help that politicians leverage the national debt discussion and the deficit ghost story to explain to an anxious public, why the richest country on Earth can’t provide for its citizens.
Pew’s contention that income level is similarly not a factor when it comes to perceptions of the deficit is also potentially disturbing for a number of reasons, depending on how the figures break down.
Make of this what you will.