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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.

Originally posted to NickK on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 12:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Nit to pick ... We do have a growing total deficit (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    NancyWH, kpardue

    it's just not growing as much. GOPers lie about this fact constantly, conflating the "deficit going up" with what sounds like "Obama's percentage of deficit spending is going up," which is demonstrably untrue.

    The total deficit itself would be a non-issue if Democrats gave a full-throated argument for Keynesian economics. But frankly, the majority of them don't believe in it, so they don't. That means that "the deficit is growing!" is a permanent Republican meme that works to kill progressive politics. Which they would rather have than a balanced budget anyway ...

    •  Not true (8+ / 0-)
      Nit to pick ... We do have a growing total deficit...it's just not growing as much.
      $1.089 trillion (2012 deficit) is more than $642 billion (2013 projection). It is going down.
      •  Perhaps speaking of the debt? (6+ / 0-)
        We do have a growing total deficit it's just not growing as much.

        Trust, but verify. - Reagan
        Vote, but Occupy. - commonmass

        When the rich have tripled their share of the income and wealth yet again, Republicans will still blame the poor and 3rd Way Democrats will still negotiate.

        by Words In Action on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 02:03:52 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  OK, I need more information. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        kpardue, indres

        So... there's debt (how much we owe) and deficit (the gap between what we owe and what we can pay).

        If I owe someone $400 and I only have $200 that I can use to repay the guy I owe, I have $400 worth of debt and a $200 deficit.

        If next week my debt increases to $800 (because the terms of that loan were ridiculous) but I also get paid, and I now have $700 that I can use to pay it off, my total debt is $800 but my deficit is $100.

        Is this generally correct? Or does economics, like every other thing the world, defy all common sense?

        Looking at Regina's post below, I think I've got it right, but the chance of an economist saying "well, yes, but..." and then launching into a 30 minute clarification that makes me rapidly lose interest is high.

        The Baptist Death Ray (wrightc [at] eviscerati [dot] org) "We are all born originals -- why is it so many of us die copies?"
        - Edward Young

        by The Baptist Death Ray on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 02:11:49 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Incorrect definition of deficit. (11+ / 0-)

          Your definition of debt is correct: the total we owe.

          The deficit is how much more we're borrowing this year. For fiscal year 2013 the US government is collecting revenue (mostly taxes) of $2.77 trillion and it's spending $3.45 trillion, so our deficit is the difference: about $680 billion.

          The debt each year increases by the amount of that year's deficit. Or if we have a surplus (this year's taxes exceed this year's expenditures) then the debt will decrease.

          Another term that gets thrown around: "unfunded liabilities." This is what we project we'll spend in the future that exceeds what we project we'll collect in taxes. This can be a big scary-sounding number. Paul Krugman (Nobel economics winner) says the scare is mostly hype, that the situation is really not so bad. Krugman says the main problem is unemployment, and that spending money now to create jobs will save money in the long run. I'm with Krugman.

          "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

          by HeyMikey on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 03:53:19 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  You are confusing the deficit with the debt (5+ / 0-)

      The debt continues to rise;  the deficit is down sharply.

    •  Sorry ... as everyone pointed out above (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ItsaMathJoke

      I meant to say total debt not total deficit.

  •  I think the problem we all have is simple (11+ / 0-)

    definitions of "deficit", which is how much more bills we owe than revenue we take in each year; versus "debt", which is how much we borrow and owe overall.

    These terms are bandied about without knowledge and meaning leading to immense confusion and worry.

    A lot of us have housing "debt", our mortgage and Christmas "debt", our credit cards. Hopefully, few of us have weekly or monthly "deficit" where we own more than we make.

    Thank you.

    Science is hell bent on consensus. Dr. Michael Crichton said “Let’s be clear: The work of science has nothing to do with consensus... which is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right,”

    by Regina in a Sears Kit House on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 01:17:59 PM PST

  •  The Republicans don't have many talking points. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    HeyMikey, conniptionfit, NancyWH

    So they trot out the same ones all the time...freedom...Benghazi...deficit...because there is a band of followers that very much want to justify their dislike for Obama, their dislike for "libruls".

    Facts hold no sway for most of those folks. Hopefully the more informed and open-minded citizens among us are paying better attention.

    •  The problem, of course, is that to correct (4+ / 0-)

      The facts on the deficit, Democrats need to spread the facts on the deficit.  And many, including Obama, have bought into the lie that deficits matter in a time of economic hardship.  So we have Democrats out there loudly proclaiming that this or that policy will fix the deficit, or taking credit for reducing the deficit, which feeds the lie.

      Here's the most important question of all: What's more important; reducing the deficit, or feeding, sheltering, and educating our children?  The problem is that a significant percentage of Americans cannot answer THAT question correctly.

  •  Deficit should be GROWING. (8+ / 0-)

    With unemployment this high, and interest rates very low, we should be borrowing MORE and spending to create jobs.

    Don't just take my word for it. That's what Nobel economics winners Krugman and Stiglitz say, too.

    "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

    by HeyMikey on Sat Nov 30, 2013 at 03:56:28 PM PST

  •  The WSJ news desk knows the difference, (0+ / 0-)

    just the opinion page penetrates into GOP pop culture. Pop icons like Greenspan don't grow on trees.

  •  Truthiness rules! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    maggid, indres

    And, our -ahem- beloved Dem Reps do not do a damn thing to counter the horse$h!t.  "We" could bury these futhermuckers if our elected Dems would just stand up like they had a spine and call them on this b.s.  Silence is acceptance.  Acceptance is unacceptable.  Our elected Dems need to stand up or get out of the way and let some new blood stand up.

  •  Capital vs operating expenses (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    monkeybrainpolitics

    Another issue is the failure to distinguish between operating expenses (what we pay to keep things working) and capital expenses (what we pay to improve the fabric or the future).

    A well-run corporation, for example, should borrow for operating expenses only in an emergency, and only on a short-term basis, but borrowing for capital expenses, like plant expansion, is standard practice. Likewise, a household is in trouble if it typically borrows to pay for food or vacations [operating], but not for education or a home [capital]. Extraordinary medical expenses [emergency] and vehicles [long-term operating costs] sit somewhere in the middle.

    From the national perspective, spending on research and (for the most part) education is investment. Spending on infrastructure is a cross between (very much delayed) capital and long-term operating expense. (In particular,  following one of my hobby-horses, development of rail systems has continually proved to be a reliable investment in economic progress.) So is most environmental and green acres spending.

    Likewise, much social spending is also either investment (child-oriented and worker-oriented programs) or return on past investment (social security, pensions, ...). And much of the rest meets long-term societal cost/benefit analysis.

    The real problem is not that we've been spending too much, it's a combination of not collecting enough (tax cuts and loopholes) and spending it on the wrong things.

  •  Pres. Obama and the Sequester (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kentucky DeanDemocrat

    If I recall correctly, Pres. Obama was against implementing "the Sequester" budget cuts.  In part because of the president's opposition, congressional republicans worked hard to make sure "the Sequester" budget was made into law.

    But now, because of "the Sequester" budget with it's deep cuts to government spending, Pres. Obama is THE MOST rootin'est, tootin'est budget cutter and deficit destroying president in the history of the country.

    THERE IS NO republican president in modern times that has EVER reduced the government's budget deficit.  You have to go all the way back to Pres. Eisenhower to find a republican president who actually reduced the deficit.  

    "The fool doth think he is wise: the wise man knows himself to be a fool" - W. Shakespeare

    by Hugh Jim Bissell on Sun Dec 01, 2013 at 09:37:48 AM PST

  •  Well... the GOP media machine (0+ / 0-)

    has been very successful, historically, at spreading misinformation (AKA "lies").... we now need to work twice as hard to correct them! Unfortunately, this is a topic that requires a little depth of understanding to appreciate.

    * Move Sooner ~ Not Faster *

    by ArthurPoet on Sun Dec 01, 2013 at 10:25:15 AM PST

  •  Obama admin suck at messaging even worse (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kentucky DeanDemocrat

    than usual Dems.

    Each and every time a Republican makes a seemingly off the cuff remark about the deficit rising, we need to push back. Even if that wasn't the main point he was saying.

    But no,, we go along and let them get away with it. When Rand Paul or McConnell or ANYONE says this we need to push back. We need to object. HARD.

    I haven't meant anyone who is not a politically involved Democrat who thinks the deficit has shrunk under Obama. MOST people I know, even in MA, think it's gone up. It's all they've heard. I try to convince people and they just DON"T believe it. I have three head. They think it's COMMON KNOWLEDGE that it's grown. It's said and reported on face value (not questioned) by the press...when one of them says it they are NOT called out by the press. When lies are allowed to pass it is like agreeing with them. People assume the press or Dems would call it out if it wasn't true. BUT NO ONE DOES.

  •  Some good comments, but popular misunderstandings (0+ / 0-)

    prevail.  Debt incurred to increase revenue, and especially to increase revenue growth rates is "good" debt.  That is, if the growth in revenue more than offsets the debt and cost of carrying that debt, (as long as the interest rate is at or below inflation and the rate is fixed, or no more above the rate of inflation than the growth or "real" growth rate, which is the rate less inflation), then debt, even a "growing" debt is actually beneficial.  Take a medical student borrowing to fund their education.  Their debt and deficit spending grows terrifically early on; then deficits decrease and disappear, then as their income turns positive to highly positive, they pay down their student loan debt until it's gone.  In theory, if the student debt has a rate of say 3% and they can invest and grow their  business or their portfolios well above that (or student debt rate is fixed and inflation is 3% or more), paying of the debt can be postponed forever without damage to current income and with benefit to future income.  However, debt incurred for current spending, especially on consumables that do not add to revenue stream improvements, is "bad" debt.  Republicans tend to label all debt as bad when it is not.  Democrats tend to describe all debt as good when it is not.  The US rolled up huge debts for WWII and then even more during the 1950s for recovery and the baby boom, and tax rates were sky high, but most of this debt went into tech, R&D, machinery, transport, education, housing and the like, things that vastly expanded the revenue stream.  But now, with the baby bust  and with decades of non-investment in education, transport, and severe cuts in R&D and the like, our growth in revenue is way down and at times not growing above inflation at all.  The US could afford borrowing for guns and butter back in the 1950s and 60s, but now, we can hardly afford guns or butter (and I'd say we need far less spent on guns than butter).  We need to incur deficits and increase our debt, but only for desperately needed investment in things that will grow our revenue, the very things Republicans most oppose (education, transport, R&D).  And we need to focus on making sure those investments land benefits onshore, not offshore.  That means closing loopholes and tax benefits for offshoring jobs and profits by our big corporations.  We also need to lower the cost of borrowing, drastically.  If you factor in all the money needed to save the "too big to fail" banks and hedge funds, the cost of borrowing and investment as practiced by our so-called "private" sector is astronomical.

    America needs a UNION NEWS channel. We (unions) have the money, we have the talent. Don't buy 30 second time slots on corporate media, union leaders; fund your own cable news channel and tell the real story 24/7/365

    by monkeybrainpolitics on Sun Dec 01, 2013 at 06:26:20 PM PST

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