Polled and Confused
How should America improve its economy? Don't ask Americans for guidance.
Tax cuts, unemployment benefits, business uncertainty, rising gas prices, another dip in housing prices, joblessness, debt, holiday shopping: These are the issues at the forefront of the polled American's mind. And all of this economic turmoil has left the polled American worried—worried and confused.
Money troubles rank first, by a huge margin, on the polled American's list of concerns. Granted, her income has improved a bit of late, but it has failed to increase meaningfully in real terms in more than a decade, and her finances have worsened year-on-year. She is earning just shy of $50,000 annually—and, as money really does buy happiness, up to a point, she would breathe easier if she were taking home fatter paychecks. She is worried about paying the rent. She is worried about the country's yawning deficit. She is worried about America's lack of jobs. She is worried about a double-dip recession. She doesn't even want to think about her retirement. For all those reasons, this holiday season, she will be more judicious about using her credit cards—she's been abusing them lately—and gift-shopping in general.
Along with the polled American's personal finances, taxes loom large in his mind. He has, somewhat uncharacteristically, followed the tax fight in Washington closely. He has no idea the Obama administration gave him a huge tax break in 2009. Still, he is firm in his conviction that he does not want his income taxes to go up this year, deficit be damned, and would not mind it at all if Congress hiked them for billionaires. So what is he making of the recent tax compromise, or third stimulus? (He tends to forget about the first one.) It's the $64,000 question, in Washington at least. And early signs are that he likes it, on balance. He supports the two-year tax-cut extension, if not the compromise for the fat cats, and supports the other measures contained within it, like the unemployment benefits.
But the polled American is not sure whether the government should be doing so much to aid the economy in the first place. And, for her, all bets are off if the tax compromise becomes known as Stimulus 3.0 (or 2.0). She barely liked the 2009 stimulus when Congress passed it, and she certainly does not like it now. (The financial regulatory reform bill? She's made her peace with that.) Yet, in an enduring example of the polled American's propensity for containing multitudes, she likes virtually all of the elements of stimulus, such as the tax breaks, unemployment insurance, infrastructure investment, and bolstered food stamps—a case of the parts besting the sum, apparently. And she thinks the country needs more of those provisions. She also supports an increase in the minimum wage.
At the same time, the polled American is concerned about Washington's yearly deficits and the bloated national debt. He believes it is "crucial" for politicians to tackle those issues. But he does not think they are the most important thing. When you ask him to rank his concerns, he says that immediate economic problems are more pressing than longer-term ones. (The polled American tends to discount the future, though.)
So how does the polled American think we should tackle the deficit issue? He knows that programs need cuts—tax hikes alone can't, and shouldn't, pull the country out of this mess. But he wants Washington to leave Social Security and Medicare well enough alone. And he hesitates to bring the ax to energy, health, or education programs. That said, he supports several provisions proposed by the president's debt commission—like shrinking the federal workforce, cutting federal salaries, closing overseas bases, and ending the tax deduction on home mortgage interest. And one program to really trim is America's generous foreign aid. The polled American thinks the government ships a quarter of our budget overseas, and thinks we should spend only $1 of every $10 helping out other nations. (In reality, the foreign aid amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget.)
One thing the polled American does not think the country needs is more bailouts. He hates bailouts. He wishes Barack Obama—it was him, right?—had not given all those bankers all that cash. They didn't need it. He's not big on those Timothy Geithner or Ben Bernanke cats, either, even if he does trust them on the economy more than you might think. He despises the Federal Reserve, even more than he hates the IRS. He thinks it's the Fed that needs auditing, though that might be because he hates the word federal. Those federal workers, for instance? He does not like them. He thinks they are overpaid and probably less qualified than private-sector workers. (He does love astronauts, though, and thinks we should send them to Mars.)
The polled American tends to think little of Congress and is lukewarm at best on the White House. Of late, she has reassessed the presidency of George W. Bush—and it looks pretty good compared with the Obama administration. (All in all, she likes Kennedy the best and Nixon the worst, as usual.) She can't shake the worry that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, even if she knows better. Then again, when asked by the pollmeisters, she tends not to be perfectly sure whether the sun revolves around the Earth, or the other way around.
Taking the long view, the polled American remains worried. She believes China has the world's strongest economy now. But despite her fears, the polled American remains characteristically sunny. Things are bad now, she says. But she believes the American Dream exists. She thinks she might even be living it. One way or another, she definitely thinks it is possible, with hard work more so than luck. Just don't ask her how to do it.
Annie Lowrey, formerly Slate’s Moneybox columnist, is economic policy reporter for the New York Times.
Photograph of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson by Mark Wilson/Getty Images.