Over at the Economix blog at the NY Times, Catherine Rampell took a look at the correlation between actual government deficits over the years and how the public perceived them, according to the Gallup poll:
If public worries about the nation’s fiscal health were perfectly related to the nation’s actual fiscal health, these two charts should be near-mirror images of each other.
That is, when the deficit represents a higher percentage of G.D.P. (i.e., the red bars pointing downward get longer), you should see more people naming the federal budget as the country’s most pressing issue (i.e., the blue bars going upward should also get longer).
Read the whole post for a long explanation and many caveats about these numbers and why they should be taken with a grain of salt, even if they are interesting.
I am interested more in the fact that the public obsession with the deficit tracks very closely with the rise of the anti-tax conservative movement, actually peaking at a time when the deficit was in very serious retreat and turning into surplus. Large numbers of people still believed it was rising.
The fiscal scolds don't stop when the numbers turn around. They keep up the fear mongering because it isn't really about balanced budgets or paying down debt. It's about keeping government from bringing positive results to the people. As long as they can keep people focused on debt, whether it exists or not, they always have the rationale to stop any sort of government action that could empower average citizens.
It's no mystery why George W. Bush was so anxious to spend that surplus he inherited as soon as possible, or why Alan Greenspan actually said that surpluses were dangerous to the economy. Their whole program is undermined if people aren't living under the impression that the economy is hamstrung by so much debt that the whole thing is in danger of coming apart at the seams if they don't (perversely) keep cutting taxes and cutting spending. People hear that enough, they just absorb it and it becomes conventional wisdom.
Deficits are an abstract concept that people end up using it as a proxy for "financial responsibility" which is extremely imprecise, since the government is responsible for a whole lot of things besides the budget. But until somebody comes up with something that makes more sense to average folks, the deficit boogeyman will be a powerful symbol that can be used by both parties to keep the government from challenging the status quo.