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Paul Krugman: Deficit down, but who knew?

Paul Krugman

We all know how democracy is supposed to work. Politicians are supposed to campaign on the issues, and an informed public is supposed to cast its votes based on those issues, with some allowance for the politicians' perceived character and competence.

We also all know that the reality falls far short of the ideal. Voters are often misinformed, and politicians aren't reliably truthful. Still, we like to imagine that voters generally get it right in the end, and that politicians are eventually held accountable for what they do.

But is even this modified, more realistic vision of democracy in action still relevant? Or has our political system been so degraded by misinformation and disinformation that it can no longer function?

Well, consider the case of the budget deficit -- an issue that dominated Washington discussion for almost three years, although it has recently receded.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that voters are poorly informed about the deficit. But you may be surprised by just how misinformed.

In a paper, the political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels reported on a 1996 survey that asked voters whether the budget deficit had increased or decreased under President Bill Clinton. In fact, the deficit was down sharply, but a plurality of voters, and a majority of Republicans, believed it had gone up.

I wondered on my blog what a similar survey would show today, with the deficit falling even faster than in the 1990s. Hal Varian, the chief economist of Google, offered to run a Google Consumer Survey. We asked whether the deficit had gone up or down since January 2010. And the results were even worse than in 1996: A majority of those who replied said the deficit had gone up; more than 40 percent said that it had gone up a lot. Only 12 percent answered correctly that it had gone down a lot.

Am I saying that voters are stupid? Not at all. People have lives, jobs, children to raise. They're not going to sit down with Congressional Budget Office reports. Instead, they rely on what they hear from authority figures. The problem is that much of what they hear is misleading, if not outright false.

The outright falsehoods, you won't be surprised to learn, tend to be politically motivated. In those 1996 data, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to hold false views about the deficit, and the same must surely be true today.

Still, aren't there umpires for this sort of thing -- trusted, nonpartisan authorities who can and will call out purveyors of falsehood? Once upon a time, I think, there were. But these days the partisan divide runs very deep, and even those who try to play umpire seem afraid to call out falsehood. Incredibly, the fact-checking site PolitiFact rated Cantor's flatly false statement as "half true."

Now, Washington still does have some "wise men," people who are treated with special deference by the news media. But when it comes to the issue of the deficit, the supposed wise men turn out to be part of the problem. People like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen of President Barack Obama's deficit commission, did a lot to feed public anxiety about the deficit when it was high. So have they changed their tune as the deficit has come down? No, so it's no surprise the narrative of runaway deficits remains.

Put it all together, and it's a discouraging picture. We have an ill-informed or misinformed electorate, politicians who add to the misinformation and watchdogs who are afraid to bark. And to the extent that there are widely respected, not-too-partisan players, they seem to be fostering the public's false impressions.

So what should we be doing? Keep pounding away at the truth, I guess, and hope it breaks through. But it's hard not to wonder how this system is supposed to work.

Paul Krugman is a New York Times columnist.


Paul Krugman
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