"You really don't think the deficit is a serious problem?" a friend asked me after I expressed shock over a new Gallup poll finding independents fear the debt more than terrorism.
Well, of course I think the debt is a serious problem. I was more surprised that Americans -- especially the all-important, ever-elusive independent swath -- seemed to fear it so. Debt doesn't anthropomorphize very well. The public debt can't take a bomb onto your 757. The threat it poses is more shapeless. And yet independents fear the federal debt more than terrorism, medical costs, immigration, wars, and unemployment.
Now that the news has marinated for a it, I think I was wrong to be surprised. As commenter Steveinch explained, national austerity would have a broader impact than the other future concerns. Most Americans don't fly often or live in high-risk metro areas. They don't live in areas of dense immigration. They might think of unemployment as a short-term problem, as they would the Middle East wars. Many Americans wouldn't feel the true bite of medical inflation until they got sick. But the long-term fallout of significant fiscal unbalance presents a looming and ominous threat.
The more important question is whether polls like this actually present an opportunity for lawmakers to seize the mantle of fiscal responsibility and get the ball rolling on serious measures to reduce our medium and long-term deficit. I'd say no.
Consider the nature of the poll. Participants responded to the question, "How serious a threat to the future well-being of the United States do you consider the following? [extremely serious, very serious, etc]." Anybody with a credit rating understands that debt is an "extremely serious" threat to "future well-being." But in Washington, future well-being isn't really the name of the game. This is a gain-now, pain-later city. That's why one of the two major parties won't consider raising effective federal tax rates above their historical low. It's why the health care bill mails the Medicare checks in 2010 and leaves the excise tax for 2018. It's why we're not willing to price carbon to insure against the probability of serious climate change.
Asking Americans if they think debt is a serious issue for the future is asking them to affirm a tautology. Of course debt is a serious issue for the future. But that's why politicians see no gain in finding solutions. It will always be a serious issue -- for future politicians to solve.