Deficit Fears and the Pollster-Pundit Complex

One of the more frustrating pundit habits is to argue that something is true exclusively because it appears that most people believe it is true. "More than 50 percent of the country agrees with me!" is an easy way to insulate yourself from a rebuttal without actually making a defense.

Take, for example, this column from U.S. News & World Report editor Mort Zuckerman. President Obama is shepherding the"most fiscally irresponsible government in U.S. history," he concludes. What kind of numbers back up a statement like that? Poll numbers.

What does it mean to be fiscally responsible during a steep economic downturn, and why has this Congress been worse at that than any other Congress before it? Zuckerman doesn't elaborate. Instead, the first half of the article paints the picture of an electorate that is scared to death of the debt. Thirty-eight percent this and 48 percent that. Polls are important, theoretically, because they anticipate voting trends. But a poll isn't evidence that you're right. It's evidence that many non-experts agree with you.

That's why following poll numbers on deficit policy a recipe for being very confused. Americans care about reducing the deficit. Really, they care. They just don't want to raise taxes or cut spending in a way that would actually accomplish the thing they really care about. Even when you drill down on more popular "soak the rich" strategies, you get this: 66 percent of America wants to raise taxes on the top two percent, while 50 percent of America also finds any such tax increase "unacceptable."

Zuckerman titular statement about this Congress being the worst ever is meaningless. Judging a government on penny-pinching during a deep economic recession is like judging a firefighter on water conservation when he's standing in front of a burning building. But Zuckerman's accusation isn't merely off-base. It's structurally deficient. This article is part of an unfortunate pollster-pundit complex where columnists, who are supposed to inform the public, instead recite public opinion without proper context or criticism, creating an infinite feedback loop that loses the central question: Is the public right?

Halfway into the article, Zuckerman finally gets there:

Of course, the question remains whether public sentiment coincides with sound economics.

Quite right the question remains! Zuckerman doesn't answer it. Not that he, or any of us, can. What should Congress do right now? is a very hard question, one that won't be answered with finality in a single column. Still. Our job is to try.

I think we should reduce the deficit over the long term, increase the deficit in the short term, and reform Social Security in January 2011. I might be right, and I'm probably wrong, but writers outsourcing their arguments to Zogby is just about the most boring form of abdication one can imagine.