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Douthat Is Making Sense on the Deficit

I don't agree with everything Ross Douthat writes in his column today. But I think he puts his finger on the way the deficit is playing politically, something a lot of politicians and commentators have missed lately:

Nothing the government has done across the last 12 months has inspired much public confidence. Of the billions poured out in bailouts and stimulus, a substantial share has gone to privileged insiders and liberal interest groups — Wall Street bankers, auto unions, public-sector employees. Beltway Democrats have spent months laboring on an enormous health care bill that feels irrelevant, at best, to the continuing unemployment crisis. And Obama and his advisers overpromised on the stimulus package, whose economic boost, while real, remains imperceptible to a nation coping with a double-digit jobless rate. ...

So voters are turning rightward instead. In New Jersey, a recent Quinnipiac poll found that 61 percent of voters favored laying off state workers to reduce the current budget shortfall; only 23 percent favored raising taxes instead. Nationally, the percentage of Americans who say that government is doing “too much” hit a 10-year peak this fall. In 2007, 69 percent of the public said that government should guarantee universal health care; now that number is down to 47 percent.

Which is to say, it's not that voters oppose government spending per se, or that they're especially exercised about the deficit itself. What they're really worried about is the economy and unemployment. But because they perceive the government's response to have been ineffective (emphasis on the word "perceive"--I actually think it's been much more effective than Douthat does), they see it as worse than no response at all. Some believe the government's response has actually hurt the economy--a reasonable (if completely inaccurate) conclusion if you know very little about economics, given how unprecedented 10.2 percent unemployment is.

Put differently, the choices many voters perceive are: 1.) 10.2 percent unemployment (or lower) without having spent a trillion dollars and change; or 2.) 10.2 percent unemployment after having spent a trillion dollars and change. Given this perception (and, again, I don't think it comes close to reflecting reality, which would have been positively gruesome without the bank bailout and the stimulus), it's no surprise many voters are saying they prefer choice 1. But--and this is key for the current debate over additional stimulus versus lowering the deficit--that's *not* the same thing as them saying they prefer a smaller deficit for its own sake.