100 Billion Reasons You Can't Trust Opinion Polls

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The massive financial bailout, which Americans still hate, could still make a profit of more than $100 billion. Meanwhile, not raising the debt ceiling, which Americans have supported, could cost the economy more than $100 billion.

Lesson #1: Public opinion polls are more like personal thermometers than barometers. Just because something tells you what's going on inside people's heads doesn't mean you should use it to assess what's going on in the real world.

The cost of not raising the debt ceiling could be $134 billion in August alone (or 10 percent of the month's GDP) according to Jay Powell, undersecretary of the Treasury in George H.W. Bush's administration. Shut out of borrowing, the federal government would have to move to a pure cash-flow system that would automatically reduce spending by 44 percent.

Meanwhile, the financial bailout could turn a mirror-opposite profit. If you factor in the Federal Reserve's profit on investments it made in securities and distressed assets, plus the Treasury and FDIC's profits on their attempts to cushion banks' losses, you wind up with a profit that could approach $100 billion by the end of next year, according to a new report by Fortune writers published in the Washington Post.

"We were surprised -- and pleased -- to discover taxpayers showing a profit on the bailout," Allan Sloan with Doris Burke wrote in the Washington Post this weekend. Here's how that breaks down.


Lesson #2: Government is a remarkable cushion for risk when it wants to be. It took more than than $14 trillion of "government investments, securities purchases, and loan guarantees -- of which TARP never amounted to more than $411 billion (although it was authorized to spend up to $700 billion)" to stabilize the financial system, Sloan and Burke write.

But I emphasize "when it wants to be." The effort to reduce the deficit immediately indicates that Washington would rather shed risk than assume more uncertainty for unemployed Americans and indebted families. I think we should be doing the opposite today. Unfortunately, there exists no fast-forward-in-an-alternative-universe machine to tell us who's right.

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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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