On August 28, 2006, Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels of Princeton University published an interesting political science report entitled It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy (www.princeton.edu/~bartels/thinking.pdf). In the paper, they reported on a 1996 survey that asked voters whether the budget deficit had increased or decreased under the first four years of Bill Clinton’s presidency. There is only one right answer to an empirical question of this sort, and that answer is that the budget deficit decreased sharply. Nevertheless, a plurality of all voters surveyed, and a majority of Republican voters surveyed, responded with their belief that the deficit was rising. Only 32.3% of all voters said that the deficit was shrinking, either a little or a lot. This phenomenon of deficit confusion is happening once again.
In August of this year, on Fox News Sunday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor talked about what he felt was the ultimate problem facing the nation, “which is the growing deficit”. Around that same time period when Senator Rand Paul was asked if the Republicans’ budget proposal was too extreme, he responded by saying, "What I would say is extreme is a trillion-dollar deficit every year” which he believes we currently have. Cantor and Paul are not alone in their beliefs that we have a “growing” “trillion-dollar deficit every year”.
A Bloomberg News national poll (media.bloomberg.com/bb/avfile/rnyKSyGsiatk) conducted in February of this year asked the following question: “Let’s turn to the federal budget deficit. This is the amount the government spends that is more than the amount it takes in from taxes and other revenue. Is it your sense that this year the deficit is getting bigger or getting smaller, or is it staying about the same as last year?” The results were 62% of Americans (over the age of 18 and weighted by age and race) said the deficit was getting larger, 28% said it stayed about the same, and 4% said they were not sure. Only 6% knew the correct answer that the deficit was getting smaller.
In “Moment of Truthiness”, a column by Paul Krugman, he explains the causes and effects of this widespread misinformation on the deficit. His column is very accurately titled because believing that the deficit is increasing requires truthiness, which is defined by Dictionary.com as “the quality of seeming to be true according to one's intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like”. One reason he points out for the misinformation is that while conservative politicians like Paul and Cantor are lying about the deficit, the Democratic politicians do not do enough to point out the truth.
Another reason Krugman cites for the misinformation on the deficit is the role that the media plays in perpetuating this misinformation. Politifact, which purports to be a non-partisan fact-checker, rated Cantor’s statement on the “growing deficit” as “half-true”, despite there being no truth in that statement whatsoever. Even the “wise men” of Washington who are treated with special deference by the news media, such as Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, participate in the fear-mongering on the deficit by claiming that it is still going up.
The belief that the deficit is shrinking is not just some opinion that Krugman and I share, it is a statistical fact backed by reality. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit in 2009 was $1.413 trillion, in 2010 it was $1.294 trillion, in 2011 it was $1.296 trillion, and in 2012 it was down to $1.089 trillion (www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/cbofiles/attachments/43904-Historical%20Budget%20Data-2.xls). The projected deficit for 2013 is $642 billion, for 2014 is $560 billion, and for 2015 it is down to $378 billion.
Is the decreasing deficit a result of President Barack Obama’s policies, or the result of the policies of congressional Republicans who took over after the 2010 elections? Is the deficit decreasing too fast, too slow, or at about the right speed? What is the best way to decrease the deficit? The answers to all of the preceding questions are normative answers, of which reasonable people can somewhat disagree. But on the question of is the deficit decreasing or increasing, there is only one correct positive answer, and it is an answer that only 6% of the country is aware of. While 6% of the country believes the truth on the deficit, the other 94% of the country believes the truthiness.