Another completely bogus poll on the national debt

Still glum about the national debt: hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson.
(Brendan Smialowski / Bloomberg)

You have to hand it to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation for its craftiness. The offspring of hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson, the foundation knows no obstacles when it comes to pushing its agenda of cutting government spending, especially on Social Security and Medicare. It funds speaking tours for deficit hawks, Washington conferences where politicians and Wall Street bankers gather for mutual hand-wringing, and “grass-roots” anti-debt lobbies that are merely fronts for big-money industrialists.

Among the foundation’s big ventures is its Fiscal Confidence Index, a monthly survey that purports to measure public concern over the national debt. The October survey is here and -- big surprise -- it comes in at an “all-time low” of 38 (100 being “neutral”).

That figure, the Petersonites say, indicate that Americans hold “deep concern about the debt” and “want elected leaders to make addressing long-term debt a high priority.”

A couple of things about this. First, as David Callahan of the progressive think tank Demos observed in January, the survey is “a case study in how polling data can be used selectively and manipulatively.” The poll is narrowly constructed -- respondents are always asked the same six questions, pertaining exclusively to the national debt. For example: “Thinking about our national debt over the last few years, would you say your level of concern has increased or decreased?” Another question is: “Some people say that addressing the national debt should be among the President and Congress’ top 3 priorities. Do you agree or disagree?”


Asking questions in a vacuum like this resembles the conjurer’s trick of forcing a card on an audience member. The survey doesn’t invite the respondent to choose three priorities from a list, or to pose his or her own priorities. Structured like this, the poll essentially is asking people to reply, “Yeah, sure, the national debt is bad, of course.”

The poll is conducted in an informational vacuum too. Respondents are asked whether they think the debt will get better or worse “over the next few years,” but they aren’t told that it’s been falling recently as a percentage of gross domestic product and is expected to keep doing so for the next few years at least. (So says the Congressional Budget Office.)

The general economic and political atmosphere doesn’t factor into this poll. One would assume that the government shutdown and the debt-ceiling standoff, which had just ended when Peterson’s pollsters went into the field, might have had something to do with people’s glum replies to the questions -- they certainly have affected all other surveys of consumer confidence.

What happens when people are asked about the national debt in an objectively structured poll, rather than one designed to ride Pete Peterson’s personal hobby horse? Interestingly, the national debt doesn’t rank high as a concern at all. Americans’ consistent No. 1 concern is job growth, which means policies that, for the near term at least, require higher federal debt.

When Gallup asked people to rank their concerns in May, 86% listed “creating more jobs” as a top or high priority, tied with “helping the economy grow.” Reducing the federal deficit, the closest Gallup came to asking about the debt, ranked seventh of the 12 choices, picked as a top or high priority by 69%. The “job situation” has been the top economic concern of the American public at least since 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. The budget deficit hasn’t ranked higher than second in all that time. The national debt doesn’t make the list.

The lesson is to beware of self-interested polls, especially when they come from the Peterson Foundation. The fiscal confidence poll doesn’t deserve your confidence.

Tell me your No. 1 economic concern.