On Deficits And Popularity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the well-funded tea partay movement being set up on the right.  Republicans seem to believe that, by focusing on the deficit and the national debt, they’re going to be able to win back support and retake the majority.  Of course, that’s if you assume that we’re all going to forget that it was Republican policies and a Republican President who necessitated that we spend so much money to bail out economy out in the first place.

But, honestly, are debts and the deficit that big of an issue? I don’t think so. First, the last the America wasn’t in debt was during Andrew Jackson’s administration.  People are used to the nation being in some astronomical amount of debt measured in larger amounts of money than most people could even imagine.  And even though partisans love to talk about how every man, woman and child in America owes [insert huge amount of money here] to pay off the national debt (and that’s people on both sides–I’m sure I’ve made that argument at some point myself), it’s a very weak argument.  See, nobody ever shows up and demands you fork over that huge amount of money.  Even when we are paying off the debt, that money comes from the taxes we’re all paying anyway.

Plus, the debt doesn’t have an impact on our daily lives.  And usually the reason America gets into more debt is economic troubles–i.e., things such as unemployment, inflation, etc. that do affect people’s lives.  For most people, then, racking up a bigger deficit to fix the economy is creating a very, very distant problem in order to fix a very, very immediate problem, and most people probably don’t mind a larger debt if it means they can feel secure that they won’t lose their job/house/health care.

Heck, if you want an example of America’s political apathy toward the national debt, look no further than Ronald Reagan himself.  Remember, Reagan tripled the national deficit during his years in office, yet he has become (particularly by supposedly deficit-hating Republicans) one of America’s top-rated former Presidents ever.

Just for kicks, here’s a graph:


Now who’s remembered for having a better economy, Carter or Reagan? Reagan, of course.  But in terms of the national debt, Carter was better.  Does that change his legacy? No, nor should it.  It just illustrates that the national debt is not really a means by which the people judge economic success or failure.

Of course, debts matter–that money has to be paid off sometime by someone.  But the question isn’t always just how much money we’re spending, but what we get in return for that spending.  If we put our country in more debt now in order to grow the economy out of further debts later, is that investment worth it? Reagan tripled the national debt and yet, a little more than 10 years after he took office, our economy was ruined once again.  In light of that, it’s hard to imagine that all the right-wing carping about our current debts is going to cause any harm at all to the Obama administration.