The deficit and debt have been the dominant issues of the first months of President Obama’s second term. Apart from the gun control debate provoked by horror in Newton, Connecticut, it sometimes seems as if the country’s governing class speaks of nothing else. Although Republicans have recently engaged in self-criticism for excessive interest in budget, the fiscal fixation is bipartisan. The fact that the deficit has actually shrunk under the Obama Administration is a current Democratic talking point.
But who actually cares about federal spending and borrowing? According to the political scientists Benjamin I. Page and Larry Bartels, fiscal matters are the special obsession of the 1%. In a piece for the L.A. Times, Page and Bartels present evidence that the rich have a distinctive austerity agenda centered on deficit and debt reduction, while the broad public care more about jobs and protecting entitlements. They go on to suggest, based on a substantial body of research, that politicians tend to respond to concerns of the economic elite rather than their own constituents.
In addition to its growing scientific basis, this argument is consistent with the idea that extreme inequality of wealth is a threat to democracy. I’m generally sympathetic to that view. But I’m not sure that interest in fiscal issues is a good test case.
To begin with, there are plenty of reasons that politicians might prefer to talk about the deficit and the debt than about unemployment. The most important is that it’s pretty easy to develop a fiscal plan, while no one actually knows how to encourage mass hiring or restore vigorous economic growth. Politicians are generally reluctant to admit that anything beyond their understanding or control. Talking about the deficit, then, is a way of maintaining the illusion that the fate of the economy will be determined in Washington.
Furthermore, there’s little evidence that the public is overwhelmingly more concerned about unemployment than fiscal issues. Bartels and Page point out “only about 12% of Americans…cited federal debt as the nation’s most important problem” in the 2011 Gallup polls that they take as a point of departure. More recent polls, however, show concern with the deficit and debt rising as high as 20% in January, and remaining within a few points of concern about jobs for the year to date.
Bartels and Page hint that this is a case of public opinion mirroring elite concerns, which are the most likely to attract media coverage. Even if that’s true, however, concern with the deficit and debt has been deep and consistent enough to belie claims of a major democratic deficit on this issue. In any case, the fact that the rich are especially concerned about the deficit and debt does not mean that fears of national bankruptcy are misplaced. Plutocratic domination is the ruin of republics. But so is government by public opinion alone.