The Peter Peterson Foundation has released its second monthly "Fiscal Confidence Index." It's worth looking at closely as a case study in how polling data can be used selectively and manipulatively -- and as a broader example of what's wrong with today's narrow, ill-informed debate over fiscal policy.
Let's start with the flawed construction of the index. It asks -- and plans to keep asking, monthly -- people to respond to six questions that measure their level of concern about the national debt, whether this should be a national priority, and whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about whether the United States will be able to make progress on the national debt.
Not surprisingly, especially in the wake of the Fiscal Cliff episode, most respondents answer that yes they are increasingly concerned about the debt; yes they think tackling the debt should be a national priority; and yes they think this problem will get worse.
The Fiscal Confidence Index gives the impression that the American public is urgently concerned about the national debt, and wants deficit reduction to be a top priority -- if notthe top priority.
Of course, though, that impression is contradicted by a large body of other opinion surveys and exit polls taken over the past two years. While, yes, some polling has found that wealthy Americans want deficit reduction to be a top priority, this view is not shared by most Americans.