Sunday, June 20, 2010


Via Digby, I see that The Washington Post's Lori Montgomery is peddling conventional wisdom ...

If Congress doesn't provide additional stimulus spending, economists inside and outside the administration warn that the nation risks a prolonged period of high unemployment or, more frightening, a descent back into recession. But a competing threat -- the exploding federal budget deficit -- seems to be resonating more powerfully in Congress and among voters.

... and a blogger Ben Somberg has demonstrated that she's utterly wrong about the public's priorities:

... is this notion supported by what the polling actually says? No. Not even close.

A Pew Research / National Journal poll from early June asked "Which of the following national economic issues worries you most?" Number one was "job situation" with 41%. "Federal budget deficit" got 23%.

An NBC / Wall Street Journal poll from early May asked "Please tell me which one of these items you think should be the top priority for the federal government." Sure enough, "job creation and economic growth" won with 35%. "The deficit and government spending" got 20%.

A Fox News poll also in early May got even more dramatic results. "Economy and jobs" topped the priority list with 47%, while "deficit, spending" garnered only 15%....

Now, I don't want to be too kind to conventional wisdom-mongers like Lori Montgomery, but I know why they think what they think. Obviously they want to believe it's true, because pious deficit hawkery is always in fashion in Washington. Beyond that, though, there are polls that seem to confirm what they so much want to believe.

I just threw a whole bunch of numbers at you above. If you're still with me, I'm going to throw a few more at you. Then I'm going to play "can you spot the differences in these two pictures?"

This is from a June 2009 Pew Research Center "Pollwatch," but I think the nation's attitudes have changed less than you'd think since then:

... The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds the public evenly divided over whether deficit reduction or stimulus spending is the higher priority for the government right now. Among 1,005 adults interviewed over landline and cell phones June 18-21, 48% place a higher priority on "spending more to help the economy recover" while 46% prioritize "reducing the budget deficit."

...[A recent] NBC/
WSJ survey asked if the president and Congress should worry more about "boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits now and in the future" or "keeping the budget deficit down even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover." When these countervailing arguments are provided, they find more siding with deficit reduction by a 23-point margin (58% vs. 35%). [A recent] CBS/NYT survey asked if the government "should spend money to stimulate the national economy, even if it means increasing the budget deficit" or "should NOT spend money to stimulate the national economy and should instead focus on reducing the budget deficit." This formulation also found more favoring deficit reduction, but by a narrower 11-point margin (52% vs. 41%).

So even a year ago you could find polls seeming to show what Lori Montgomery thinks is out there -- great concern about deficits.

But did you notice what words are missing in the poll questions listed by Pew?

"Employment." "Unemployment." "Jobs."

If you compare debts and the deficit to helping "the economy to recover" or "stimulat[ing] the economy," people want to prioritize deficits and debt.

But if you compare debts and the deficit to jobs, you find that, well, people want some damn jobs.


The extent to which debt and deficits concern most Americas is already greater than it should be, even in polls where these rank far down on priority lists, for a simple reason, I think: to an ordinary person, being in financial trouble is being in debt. Most people don't think of the government as being different from themselves. They don't think about the fact that it might be necessary to spend up to churn up economic activity, and that the money spent will be well spent in the long run.

(To some extent I fault the Keynesians in our government, who can't, or don't bother to, explain this idea in plain language. Businesses do this all the time -- advertising even when they're running losses, for instance. Individuals sometimes do it, too -- for instance, paying for schooling or retraining when they're broke and unemployed. I'd appreciate it if the president of the United States would make such comparisons.)

But, in any event, poll respondents absolutely prefer job creation to debt reduction. Job creation is something they get. "Economic stimulus"? Not so much. "Economic stimulus" is abstract.

It's good that pollsters poll these questions several different ways. It helps us get a nuanced picture of public opinion. It's bad, however, that reporters like Montgomery cherry-pick the polls, or are simply blind to the ones that don't jibe with Beltway conventional wisdom.

No comments: