Friday, June 19, 2009

Poll dancing

A couple of recent polls are being used to conclude that Americans are more concerned about the increasing debt than they are about the faltering economy.

From a New York Times/CBS poll:
Which comes closer to your own view? The federal government should spend money to stimulate the national economy, even if it means increasing the budget deficit, OR The federal government should NOT spend money to stimulate the national economy and should instead focus on reducing the budget deficit.

Stimulate the economy: 41
Reduce budget deficit: 52
DK/NA: 7

From an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll:
Which of the following two statements comes closer to your point of view?

Statement A: The President and the Congress should worry more about boosting the economy even though it may mean larger budget deficits now and in the future.

Statement B: The President and the Congress should worry more about keeping the budget deficit down, even though it may mean it will take longer for the economy to recover.

Statement A/Worry more about boosting the economy: 35
Statement B/Worry more about keeping budget deficit down: 58
Depends (VOL): 2
Not sure: 5

I have a problem with these poll questions. Each leads the respondent to start from the premise that more government spending will improve the economy. This is particularly true of the NYT/CBS poll, which explicitly frames the question as a choice between spending government money to stimulate the economy and not doing so.

By definition, an economy grows when it creates wealth. Government doesn't create wealth, it consumes wealth. The economy and the deficit are not mutually exclusive. Any money that is added to the deficit must be got from taxation or borrowing. This means that money that would otherwise be used to create wealth is being siphoned out of the economy.

So it isn't an either/or. The way to both strengthen the economy and reduce the deficit is to keep as much money in the private sector as possible. Then stand back and let the American people do their thing.

I acknowledge that not all economists see things this way, but a great many do. And that alone should be sufficient reason to frame these questions in a less leading way, and more meaningful, way.

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