America, the Impatient Nation

Just about every paragraph of TaxVox's Howard Gleckman's smart but grumpy column about public opinion and the deficit is spot on, but this paragraph is particularly provocative:

Americans are not stupid, and in fact their collective wisdom on public policy is usually pretty sound. But the nation faces immensely complex policy issues at a time of severe economic turmoil. Americans are nervous and uncertain. They want change, a mood that both presidential candidate Barack Obama and the tea party have successfully tapped. But change also makes people very uncomfortable, especially when they already feel insecure. So we want to move in a new direction and are simultaneously terrified about what it would mean.

Spot on. David Brooks drew a similar picture when he told Chris Beam that we've become a greedy nation that doesn't understand trade offs: "We want tax cuts and more entitlements, without realizing the contradiction," he said. "We want speedy, in-and-out wars. We want a president who can fix any crisis--even an oil spill he's not equipped to solve."

If Americans are becoming greedy, Washington is helping. We expect tax cuts and more entitlements, because for the last 30 years, we've generally come to expect falling tax burdens and richer benefits. Sometimes politicians even tell us crazy things like tax cuts in the 2000s increased government revenue. We expected a speedy, in-and-out war in Iraq because we were promised an easy war would pay for itself in oil revenues.

The nation's new fear of the deficit is an interesting coda to this era of unchecked promises. I think today's deficit hysteria is a bit half-baked, and it shouldn't eclipse unemployment insurance now that spending has flat-lined. But it suggests that Americans are beginning to realize that the gig is up, somehow. We can't keep lowering taxes and letting spending on discretionary and entitlement programs continue unchecked. As Gleckman writes, it's not clear whether this will naturally result in a particularly sensible policy preference. It's not even clear that Americans are ready to accept the kind of higher taxes or lower spending that deficit-reduction will require. But I hope it means that Americans are ready for Washington to talk to them like adults.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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