Voters Actually Concerned About US Federal Deficit

We awaken to a bright new day, a spring in our step. For we stand at the dawn of a new era, in which fiscal responsibility is the primary objective of Congress again.

Oh, hell – we haven’t had enough coffee yet to keep up the pretense this morning. Last night on CNN, Wolf Blitzer tossed a softball question to Rep. Eric Cantor, the likely new House majority leader: Name one federal program Republicans will reduce.

Cantor whiffed.

Still, we won’t dismiss the message that voters were trying to send yesterday, however much it will fall on deaf ears.

It’s worth revisiting a poll commissioned by the Peterson Foundation in March 2009 – when employers were shedding nearly 700,000 jobs a month and the S&P 500 stood at the ominous number of 666.

The poll asked a simple question: What do you believe poses a major threat to the nation’s future?

Voters' Views on Threats to the US

Respondents could say yes to more than one choice, but deficits and debt got the biggest response.

This sentiment hasn’t changed over the following 20 months… as we can see from yesterday’s exit polling. Edison Research interviewed 18,132 voters. They were given three choices for reviving the economy, and asked which they preferred most:

  • Cutting the federal deficit
  • Spending programs to create jobs
  • Tax cuts.

Leave aside the peculiar either-or nature of the question: It’s pretty remarkable that a plurality – four in 10 people – opted for cutting the deficit. Even self-identified Tea Party voters faced with this false choice chose cutting the deficit over cutting taxes.

“I’ve had several opportunities in the last few months to visit cities in the Midwest,” says demographer Neil Howe, who wrote several books with the late William Strauss on the interplay of generations in the United States.

“In each of them, I ask my hosts, what issues really concern local voters in the midterms? And they say, the huge and growing federal deficit. And then I say, yes, of course, sure, but what do they really worry about? And then the hosts say, no, honestly, they are really worried about the country going bankrupt.

“I found these conversations very ominous and very Fourth Turning.”

“Fourth Turning” is the term Howe and Strauss apply to the crises that recur in American society every 80 years or so – the Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression and World War II.

All that underlying unease helps explain why this has become an Internet sensation…

Citizens Against Government Waste – the outfit that puts out the annual “Pig Book” of pork-barrel spending outrages – produced this commercial last month. ABC deemed it “too controversial,” but it’s making the rounds on the 24-hour news and business channels.

It portrays a Chinese lecture hall in 2030, the professor telling his students how major empires fell, including the United States. “Of course, we owned most of their debt,” he says. “So now they work for us.”

Some oversensitive people interpret the ad as China-bashing, and the Chinese government issued a pro forma denunciation. But in “flyover country,” people understand this isn’t really about China.

It’s about “the country going bankrupt”…and the dollar losing whatever value it still has.

Addison Wiggin
for The Daily Reckoning

The Daily Reckoning