What Voters Think When They Hear "Deficit"

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For the record, since I've written about this recently, I think Jonathan Bernstein is absolutely right on the question of deficits and public opinion:

I find it quite plausible that (many? most?) independents have no idea that "deficit" refers to the difference between federal government revenues and federal government expenditures, but instead use it as a synonym for "bad things in the economy." The basic text for this assertion, which I've referred to many times, is a question to George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot, and Bill Clinton about how the deficit affected them personally, asked at a town-hall style 1992 debate.

If you don't remember the exchange, here it is:

Q. Yes, how has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them? [...]

President Bush. Well, I think the national debt affects everybody. Obviously, it has a lot to do with interest rates -- --

Ms. Simpson. She's saying you personally.

Q. You, on a personal basis, how has it affected you?

Ms. Simpson. Has it affected you personally?

President Bush. Well, I'm sure it has. I love my grandchildren. I want to think that -- --

Q. How?

President Bush. I want to think that they're going to be able to afford an education. I think that that's an important part of being a parent. If the question -- maybe I get it wrong. Are you suggesting that if somebody has means that the national debt doesn't affect them?

Q. What I'm saying -- --

President Bush. I'm not sure I get it. Help me with the question, and I'll try to answer it.

Q. Well, I've had friends that have been laid off in jobs -- --

President Bush. Yes.

Q. I know people who cannot afford to pay the mortgage on their homes, their car payment. I have personal problems with the national debt. But how has it affected you? And if you have no experience in it, how can you help us if you don't know what we're feeling?

There is actually a lot more to the questioning (I've omitted responses from Perot and Clinton), but this is the most important part. The questioner asks about the debt, and when pressed to clarify, she immediately moves to discussing economic insecurity: unemployment, reduced income, etc. She is using the debt as a proxy for more immediate issues, which -- as you can see -- completely mystifies President Bush.

Like Bernstein, I think this is still true of voters today and explains the disconnect between the public's concern over debt and its opposition to most plans for addressing it; when voters hear "debt" or "deficit," they think "jobs" and "wages." Plans to address our national finances fall on deaf ears because the public simply isn't very interested on (or even understands) debt qua debt.

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