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Fiscal Nonsense Index: Peterson Foundation and Global Strategy Group Ask the Same Biased Questions

David Callahan

Imagine a pollster calls you up and asks the following question: Is staying in good health one of your top three priorities in the coming year?

Why, of course, you would say. Now that you think of it, being healthy is pretty damn important. 

But suppose the same pollster called you up and asked a different question: What are your top three priorities in the coming year? Would you mention staying in good health? Maybe or maybe not. But even if you did list it as one of your top three priorities, it might actually be far behind other priorities you'd mention, reflecting your more immediate concerns, like getting a better job or improving your marriage. 

In other words, just because you put health in the top three basket doesn't mean it's something pressing on your mind. 

With this analogy in mind, consider the latest installment of the Fiscal Confidence Index, a monthly survey that Global Strategy Group does for the Peter Peterson Foundation, a policy shop with some of the deepest pockets in Washington, thanks to its billionaire benefactor.

The survey poses this question: Some people say that addressing the national debt should be among the President and Congress' top 3 priorities. Do you agree or disagree?

Note the two-fold bias of the question: First, it is not open-ended, so it inherently moves respondents to think about the national debt. Second, it seeks to further color people's response by informing them that others already agree that the national debt is important. 

It's no surprise that 83 percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed to the question. And, armed with these results, the Peter Peterson Foundation can go out and tell politicians and the media that "Americans want elected leaders to make addressing long-term debt a high priority."

Does the poll tell us what are the other priorities of respondents? No. Does it tell us how the national debt compares to those other priorities? No. Does it ask respondents to choose among, or rank, priorities? No.

These omissions turn out to be very convenient for the Peterson Foundation, since nearly all other polls -- those not commissioned by fiscal hawks with an agenda -- tell a very different story about what the public wants. Those polls suggest that, yes, tackling the national debt is a priority, but it is not a high priority. More to the point, bringing down deficits consistently ranks far behind improving the economy and creating jobs. Which suggests that the public is more supportive of continuing to run high deficits in order to fix the economy than of deficit reduction that may harm the economy. 

In other words, the public's priorities are pretty much exactly the opposite of what the Fiscal Confidence Index implies. 

Consider a bunch of polls taken in the past six months on national priorities. Last week, a CBS/New York Times poll asked respondents a proper open-ended question about priorities: What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today? The results: 40 percent said "jobs and the economy;" 6 percent said "the budget deficit/national debt," and 4 percent said "immigration." 

Deficits ranked higher in a Quinnipiac University Poll in early February and a CNN poll in January, but both of these polls forced respondents to choose between priorities, with deficits included on the list. Still, in both those polls, the respondents expressed far more concern about the economy and jobs than deficits.

In fact, it seems impossible to find any poll conducted over the past two years that shows that deficit reduction is a higher priority for the public than job creation. Nearly every poll taken shows improving the economy trumping deficit reduct by at least a two-to-one ratio. And when the priorities question is open-ended, without pollsters mentioning the deficit, the ratio tends to more like four-to-one. 

The single largest poll that asked about national priorities in the past year was the exit survey posed to 10,978 voters on Election Day last November. Voters were asked to name the "most important issue facing the country" and were given a list of four options. Fifty-nine percent named the economy; 18 percent named healthcare; 15 percent named the deficit. 

Any pollster who's hung around public policy issues for a long time knows the budget deficit has rarely been a pressing concern for the American public. That remains the case today. The Peter Peterson Foundation is determined to show otherwise through misleading polling. It's a shame that the Global Strategy Group -- along with its talented research director, Nick Gourevitch -- is willing to do Peterson's dirty work.