CQ WEEKLY – COVER STORY
June 11, 2011 – 10:32 a.m.
What They Don't Know About the Deficit
By Fred Barbash, CQ Staff
With Washington tied in knots over the budget deficit, pollsters lately have been trying to get a sense of exactly where voters stand on the issue. What they’re finding would not be terribly helpful to those trying to solve the problem.
That’s because many Americans’ perception of how federal spending is divvied up is just plain wrong. In fact, if their answers about the federal budget were even close to correct, slashing the deficit would be a breeze.
In a recent CNN-Opinion Research survey, 30 percent of the respondents guessed that a fifth or more of the budget goes for foreign humanitarian and development aid. The real figure is closer to six-tenths of 1 percent.
In a Bloomberg survey, 70 percent said cutting foreign aid would make a large dent in the deficit. Fewer than half said the same about cutting Medicare.
About 22 percent of the respondents, when surveyed, thought the Corporation for Public Broadcasting consumes more than a tenth of the budget. The reality is closer to a hundredth of a percent.
And about a quarter of those in the survey believed that more than 10 percent of taxpayer money pays for housing assistance for the poor. The real figure is about 1.2 percent.
At a time when the deficit is driving every debate in Washington, the fiscal intelligence of the citizenry is troubling but not surprising to experts on public opinion. Mostly, pollsters say, people are in a state of confusion on a broad variety of issues.
It isn’t that they don’t care. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of those responding in most surveys see the deficit as a “major problem.” It’s that they don’t know. Not knowing in America is an old habit that should have faded over the years, given Americans’ educational opportunities and access to information, but hasn’t, according to those who study public opinion.
Failed quizzes about the budget only scratch the surface. Research demonstrates fundamental misunderstandings across the spectrum about government, about which level of government does what and which official is accountable for what. Presidents get blamed for local problems, mayors for national problems. Incumbent office holders can even get a boost on voting day if their local team wins a major championship just prior to an election.
This ignorance creates a vacuum that politicians and activists are all too happy to fill — with their own spin.
Multiple versions of reality or wishful thinking distort the debate, particularly on issues such as government spending. “It explains why people say, ‘We don’t like deficits,’ and on the other hand say, ‘Don’t cut anything and don’t raise taxes,’” said Bryan Caplan, a George Mason University scholar and author of an oft-cited book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies.”
It explains why many think that “raising taxes on rich people will do it” on the deficit, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “Some knowledge about wealth might change that attitude.”
What They Don't Know About the Deficit
The fact that there’s so little understanding of the basic facts means there’s little agreement on what is actually being debated, complicating matters further. “The lack of an agreed-upon playing field makes the deficit debate a disaster,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studies public opinion. “People are talking past each other.”
Confusion is the norm for many Americans, and every month brings another illustration in the form of surveys showing just what Americans don’t know. One of the most jaw-dropping recent results came from a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in which nearly half the respondents could not say whether the Obama administration’s health care law was still law. A quarter thought it had been repealed. Another didn’t know whether it existed or not.
A trove of data just before and after the 2010 midterm election showed serious misunderstandings among voters about virtually every issue they claimed to care about, from the economy to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the economic stimulus bill and the 2008 financial industry bailout.
On the economy, almost two-thirds of voters surveyed in a Bloomberg poll believed incorrectly that the economy hadn’t grown during 2010, when, in fact, it grew all that fiscal year.
In the immediate wake of the 2010 election, fewer than half of Americans, according to a Pew poll, didn’t know exactly how it came out, whether Republicans had won the House, the House and the Senate, or neither.
The more systemic problem, and one that disturbs academics and others who study this phenomenon, is the gap demonstrated by a series of studies of what citizens need to know to hold officials accountable: What level of government is responsible for what; who has control over certain events, and who does not.
This vacuum in understanding, say public opinion experts, lets officials off the hook and also licenses their finger-pointing exercises as they try to shift responsibility elsewhere.
Overwhelmed with Information
It isn’t news that the public is badly informed on public affairs. The dark arts practiced by political consultants are predicated on the idea that some proportion of voters will believe almost anything in part because their knowledge is limited. Thus the standard campaign ad can treat opinion as fact just as voters do in surveys: “Republicans voted to end Medicare” is one example; Democrats passing a “government takeover” of health care is another.
Nor is it a revelation that voters often choose “facts” to suit their opinions. The notion that public broadcasting eats up a sizable chunk of the budget gets life from Republican efforts to eliminate appropriations for National Public Radio. “Conservatives have heard a lot about this on Fox and so are very energized about this issue,” says Kohut.
But civic-minded activists, indeed generations of civics teachers, used to hope that as people became better educated and as news became more accessible, America’s political IQ would improve. That does not appear to have happened.
There’s been no formal measure of public ignorance over time since the 1950s. But Kohut said he did a study in the 1990s showing that young people “knew less about what was going on in the world than they had in the ’60s and ’70s. Since then we’ve gone through a coaxial revolution and a digital revolution of news flows, and the levels of information are the same as they were in the early ’90s.”
Indeed, scholars and surveys suggest that the proliferation of new media outlets — cable television news, the Internet, Twitter and all the rest — have become part of the problem.
What They Don't Know About the Deficit
“The level of information saturation in the highly advanced economies is not all a good thing,” said Clay Ramsay, research director for the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland. “If you have so many choices” of information, “your sorting problem is increased to the point where you don’t have time for it. You have your kids. You have your marriage. And you have your job. And then you have some time left over for the wider world. If you are constantly trying to thrash your way through extravagant competing claims because no one is helping you filter it out, your ability to see the world gets impaired.”
Studies by Pew and others have shown that people increasingly congregate primarily or exclusively at news sources they know will cater to their existing beliefs. Thus, they are less and less likely to hear information that conflicts with their point of view.
Research by Nyhan and others has confirmed empirically that the speed and ubiquity of new media sources, combined with mastery of the field by partisan activists, has brought the level of misinformation in America to new heights.
Nyhan studied the origin and spread of the claim that the Democratic health care bill included “death panels,” which would determine who would get treated and who would not. In the study, titled “Why the ‘Death Panel’ Myth Wouldn’t Die,” he wrote that as politics has become more polarized, “legislators, pundits and interest groups have waged a vicious communications war against each other, making misleading claims about the other side and its policy agenda. These claims are then rapidly disseminated to the public via both the mainstream media, which often reports misleading rhetoric in a ‘he said, she said’ format, and the growing array of talk radio hosts, cable news shows and websites that cater to the demand for preference-consistent news and (mis)information.”
People tend not to engage on issues, if they do at all, unless and until they feel they have a direct stake and a direct impact on the outcome. “To a certain degree, the public has the policy world and politics on a need-to-know basis,” says Kohut. When people have a need to get interested, he says, they get informed.
Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University who has researched voter ignorance extensively, says the voter who chooses not to know is behaving rationally. Individuals will do a lot of research in advance of decisions they really control, such as whether to buy a new car. But they have miniscule control over who gets elected to the presidency or to Congress, and thus choose not to spend a lot of time prepping in advance of election day. There’s no incentive, Somin says, to become informed just to be a “better voter.”
Congress itself hasn’t done anything to improve voter understanding of the issues, particularly when it involves the complexities of the federal budget.
Political stalemate in Washington means that the annual appropriations process has broken down more often than not in the last decade. Lawmakers use continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills rather than the more painstaking and deliberative process they designed for themselves to use.
So the civics class notion that the “president proposes and Congress disposes” in federal spending is very far from reality. It’s hard enough for close observers of Congress to understand, much less people watching from afar.
Another distortion comes from the fact that much of the debate over the budget and spending happens around the edges. Two-thirds of all spending is mandatory — meaning interest payments on the debt and entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security — while only a third is spending that can be readily adjusted up or down on a yearly basis. Lawmakers are starting to talk about the need to get Medicare costs under control, but until now much of the noise in budget debates has been over a small slice of the pie. So that small slice takes on outsized importance in the minds of voters. Earmarks are a more minuscule sliver, and they have generated some of the loudest fights.
Another reason the voter may be confused is the sheer complexity of the issues at hand. If Congress decides not to raise the debt ceiling, the perception that the United States is in imminent danger of default might cause a spike in interest rates and do real harm to the economy. On the other hand, no one really knows what would happen, because the government has never before defaulted.
Studying the Ignorant Voter
The study of voter ignorance, which began in the 1940s, has become a modest industry in the academic world. Conservatives over the years associated the “ignorant voter” idea with supposedly elitist and paternalistic liberals. But libertarians such as Caplan and Somin have taken up the subject eagerly.
What They Don't Know About the Deficit
“Before you study public opinion, you ask why things aren’t better,” says Caplan. “After you study public opinion, you ask why things aren’t worse.”
Somin writes in the draft of his forthcoming book, “Democracy and Political Ignorance,” that the “sheer depth of most individual voters’ ignorance is shocking to many observers not familiar with the research.” He sees public ignorance as “a type of pollution that infects the political system rather than our physical environment.”
Much of the recent research by Somin, Caplan and others does indeed go to the heart of the political system, shedding light on why political professionals do what they do and why it so often works.
Nyhan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University showed in an ambitious experiment how resistant voters can be to adjusting their version of reality even when presented with the corrective facts. Non-truth sticks, especially when it reinforces an existing bias.
That’s why misleading ads, Nyhan said in an interview, are so popular with consultants — and even more so when such ads create a controversy, which serves to reinforce the falsehood. The consultants’ position “may take a negative hit,” he says, “but they know that once these things are out there, they’re hard to walk back.”
As proof, he says the “death panel” myth persists to this day.
While voter biases reinforce misinformation, voter ignorance is what licenses politicians and their operatives to dish it out. “People who are insiders understand what they can get away with,” says Caplan.
The frailties of homo Americanus are on wider display than they have ever been, thanks to frequency and repetitiveness of polls in recent years. The Pew Research Center’s regular surveys of political knowledge has become a standard index on the subject.
The last one, in March, showed that:
• 43 percent of the public didn’t know the unemployment rate.
• 57 percent didn’t know the name of the Speaker of the House.
• 60 percent didn’t know that most U.S. electricity comes from coal.
• 62 percent didn’t know that Republicans had a majority in the House.
What They Don't Know About the Deficit
• 71 percent didn’t know that the single program on which the government spends the most money is Medicare.
WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project based at the University of Maryland, conducted a similar study in December 2010. It found “strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the issues prominent in the election campaign,” including the economic stimulus law, the health care overhaul, the state of the economy, climate change, campaign contributions and President Obama’s birthplace.
Voters uniformly misattributed the origins of both the financial and auto bailouts, saying Obama started both, when in fact both began under President George W. Bush.
Only 10 percent of the voters knew that their taxes had gone down in recent years. About 38 percent of them believed they had gone up during Obama’s presidency.
The Larger Problem
More revealing is the accountability gap that researchers documented most recently in an unpublished paper titled, “Systematically Biased Beliefs about Political Influence,” by Caplan, Somin, Eric Cramton of the University of Canterbury and Wayne A. Grove of Lemoyne College in Syracuse.
What we found,” said Grove, an economist, “is that if you look item by item at the budget, the economy, and so on, you see that the public does not distinguish the role of Congress from the role of the president from the role of state and local officials.” As a result, he said, “it’s hard to hold politicians accountable,” and the politicians know it, he added.
In addition to being wrong about who does what, voters tend to be wrong about the capacity of officials to influence events over which they have little or no control.
Politicians, political operatives, campaign advertising gurus and pollsters have operated for decades on this very assumption: that the electorate indiscriminately hands out blame and credit. Grove believes this phenomenon bears some responsibility for the deficit, for the intense focus now on spending and taxes, and for the deadlock as Republicans and the White House grapple with the debt ceiling.
Grove credits tea party activists with breaking the accountability code by focusing so much attention on the deficit, and by pointing directly at Congress, which is responsible for the red ink.
Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, also illustrates how a single savvy activist, who understands government, can effectively use that knowledge to inform and mobilize voters who otherwise might stay on the sidelines.
Since Ronald Reagan was president, Norquist has made his organization a powerful force in Republican politics largely by eliciting from candidates signed pledges not to support any measure that looks like a tax increase, whatever it is called. Although the average American might not understand the intricacies of the tax code, they do understand a simple statement like that.
All but 14 sitting Republicans in the House and Senate have signed Norquist’s pledge, and he has a proven track record of mobilizing voters against anyone who breaks it. Among those he is credited with helping to defeat was President George Bush in 1992, who famously broke his “read my lips” pledge against a tax increase.
What They Don't Know About the Deficit
In recent months, Norquist has figured prominently in the deficit debate, feuding with some GOP senators who think he’s getting in the way of a possible compromise that would bring Republicans on board to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2 to avoid what Treasury Secretary
GOP leaders are demanding significant spending cuts as a condition of support for the debt limit increase, and most say they’re unwilling to make revenue measures, or tax increases, part of the mix. Democrats say they’ll talk about cuts if Republicans show more flexibility on revenue.
But when some Senate Republicans, including Oklahoma’s
“Simplification of the tax code was something Republicans have talked about for a long time,” says Maryland’s Ramsay. “But Grover Norquist says ‘no.’ The question is why is that so potent. . . . Where does this depth of perception that he has this power come from? The biggest political decision was Grover Norquist sitting alone and deciding that reforming the tax code consisted of a tax increase. Had he decided the other way, the road might have been open” to agreement.
Norquist, in an interview, counters that he isn’t standing in the way of a deal, only of a deal that includes tax increases. “There will be a deal,” he said. “There just won’t be tax increases.” And he took issue with the suggestion that he personally is such a “potent” force. The power comes from the pledge, he says. “If I said tomorrow that we should raise taxes, it wouldn’t matter” because the pledges would still be in effect.
What the pledge does, he says, is to save voters time and effort they would have to expend studying issues to determine what a candidate stands for. “The pledge reduces the cost of being an informed citizen,” he says. Taxation “is an issue that tells you everything else you need to know about the person. If a candidate won’t raise taxes, he won’t be a spender either.”
Activists such as Norquist may be simplifying things for voters. But some believe that the black-and-white inflexible distinctions they draw discourage political deal-making in Congress, Grove said. Meanwhile, citizens who might support compromise largely remain in the dark and on the sidelines. Recent polls do in fact show the public to be more receptive than Congress to a compromise of tax measures and spending cuts.
Kohut says, in his experience, voters ultimately catch up. But it can take time. He cites George W. Bush’s proposal when he first ran for president to create personal accounts under Social Security. “When we started testing the idea of privatizing Social Security, the Bush initiative, we were getting 70 percent of the public saying they liked the idea. Once Bush wins and begins to talk about it, that 70 goes down to a 40. So you have to be very leery about asking questions about things people haven’t thought about,” Kohut says.
“Opinions do change when people get information,” he says, “and they will get the information on things they’ve not thought about when they see an opportunity, or when they feel threatened.”
FOR FURTHER READING: Debt talks, CQ Weekly, p. 1208; long cuts, p. 998; Norquist, p. 1132.