Saturday, April 30, 2011


News from a new Gallup poll:

Americans Favor GOP on Budget: Poll

Americans say Republicans in Congress would do a better job than Democrats in dealing with the U.S. budget, according to a poll released Friday....

The USA Today/Gallup survey of 1,013 U.S. adults looked at whether Americans expressed more confidence in the ability of Republicans or Democrats in Congress to deal with six major issues facing the country.

The federal budget was the only issue in which respondents clearly preferred one party over the other, with 48 percent favoring Republicans and 36 percent Democrats....

The numbers are here.

The standard liberal response to stories like this is that Democrats should have pushed back against attempts by right-wingers (and centrists) to make the deficit the #1 economic issue. I agree that that's a problem -- but I also think Democrats get in trouble by accepting (and using)the standard political simile for government indebtedness, which is that a government's budget is just like a family's budget.

Democrats shouldn't say, We need to deal with this debt precisely the way you would in your own family. The federal government is not like a family.

The federal government collects revenue -- and, by spending in a severe recession, it can actually collect more revenue (because economic stimulus keeps people working, and thus paying taxes; it also keeps people spending, which means storekeepers and manufacturers have taxable revenue). Obviously this comes at a cost -- in order to do this in a recession, government has to borrow a lot of money -- which is why government sustains (or should sustain) employment this way only when necessary. But when it is necessary, and it's done right, it works.

By contrast, a family at a kitchen table can't really come up with a lot of ways to make money by spending money -- maybe you can do it by paying for schooling or job training (which is the metaphor I'd use if I were a Democratic president trying to explain all this), but there aren't that many other ways. A family is just different from a government.

If a Democratic president won't say this, of course voters are going to fall back on the belief that government should do the simple, basic things they themselves would do if they were in financial trouble -- first and foremost, they'd just spend less. But for a family, "just spending less" means eating out less or not taking vacations -- expenditures that don't generate revenue. Government deficit spending in a recession, by contrast, does generate revenue.

And government spending in a recession has a pump-priming effect -- it influences the entire economy. A family's now-canceled trip to the Grand Canyon isn't like that.

If Democrats don't even try to explain how these two kinds of debt are different -- if, in fact, they assert that that they're the same -- of course they lose the public-opinion battle.

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