Duncan Black poses a question:
Nobody cares about the deficit. Why don’t people understand this?
Matthew Yglesias attempts an answer:
Politicians don’t understand that the voters don’t care about the deficit because the voters themselves don’t understand that they don’t care about the deficit. Black, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and I all believe that with unemployment high and interest rates and inflation low that a larger short-term deficit will help post real output and reduce unemployment. If most people agreed with that, then politicians would talk about the deficit in a different way.
But they don’t. Public understanding of fiscal policy is hazy, inaccurate, and dominated by fallacious analogies between a national government and a household. What’s more, voters believe that deficits are primarily driven by wasteful government spending. So when a recession strikes the deficit spikes, and people complain.
Not only are people too quick to believe that wasteful government spending is the primary cause of deficits, but in addition to this, people are reflexively susceptible to the idea that government spending and deficits are an impediment to economic recovery, and that if you sweep them away, a thousand economic flowers will suddenly bloom. After all, Americans have had this idea beaten into their heads by the right for decades now.
As Kevin Drum noted recently, one of the clearest signs of the triumph of conservative rhetoric is that people simply don’t believe government can create jobs. Even worse, they’re all too willing to believe the opposite -- that government and deficits are vaguely an obstacle to job creation.
And so, when pollsters ask people about the deficit during hard times, large numbers of them do in fact express generalized anxiety about it. Of course, when pollsters ask them what they care about more -- deficits or unemployment -- fewer cite the deficit, and far more cite unemployment. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t continue to link the two in their minds, and far too few Democrats want to take on the task of cutting that chain by trying to persuade folks that you can spend now to create jobs and then tackle the deficit later when times are better.
Instead, many of them opt for what they think is the easier route: Nodding along and saying that deficits are really bad and that we really must cut spending, but that we can’t cut quite as deeply as conservatives want. This, of course, only risks reinforcing the conservative worldview, and risks making it harder, and not easier, to win the argument over the long term.