Bill Simmons (aka ESPN's Sportsguy) likes to write about a concept he calls overrated underrated athletes. Basically, guys who are so frequently talked about as being underrated that they have become overrated. In the eighties, Mo Cheeks of the Sixers was the oft mentioned "most underrated player in the NBA." According to Simmons, today it may be the Hornets David West.
Like much of Simmons' work, this is fun barroom debate. We'd like to propose a Washington, DC version: let's apply the same concept to politics and punditry. In particular, what are the ideas that are introduced as surprising, shocking, and new so often that they have become not just conventional wisdom but trite and, well, overrated?
We have two nominees, both linked to the deficit discussion.
Every pundit worth his weight in Starbucks Komodo Dragon Blend has at some point recently said something like: "The public is of two minds when it comes to the deficit. They claim they want politicians to balance the budget. But, they don't want taxes to go up and they oppose cuts in everything... save perhaps foreign aid."
This leads pundits to one of two conclusions: the public is hypocritical (balance the budget but don't do anything to, you know, balance the budget) or the public is stupid and actually thinks we can balance the budget by just getting rid of waste, fraud and abuse.
This is actually two related but distinct overrated concepts: 1) The public wants politicians to make deficit reduction a top priority; 2) Those same Americans are unwilling to accept any sacrifice required to achieve that goal.
At one point, these may have been underrated concepts. But we've now heard them so often they have become overrated. And, well, simplistic. Let's look at them individually.
It is absolutely true that American's interest in tackling the federal deficit has grown in the past year. The advent of the Tea Party, President Obama's Deficit Commission, the specter of financial meltdown in Greece, Ireland and other nations and the simple fact of a ballooning national deficit have combined to make the deficit a major concern. And perhaps that concern was underrated for too long.
But now the pendulum has swung too far. Reading national political press you would assume that the deficit is by far the nation's top priority. And that's not remotely the case.
When forced to choose between the deficit and other priorities, the deficit consistently ranks well behind the economy and unemployment. For example, February Gallup tracking data show about one-third of Americans picking unemployment as the top priority, a similar percentage picking the economy, and just 11% selecting the deficit as the top priority for the country.
Given that just one out of every ten Americans thinks deficit reduction should be our nation's top priority, the argument dominating the current news-cycle which imagines a nation obsessed with deficit reduction yet paralyzed about the sacrifices required simply doesn't reflect reality.
And that brings us to the next issue which is what Americans are prepared to sacrifice for the goal of deficit reduction. It is true that most polls show no area other than perhaps foreign aid where a clear majority of Americans support spending cuts. Similarly, most polls show majority opposition to taxes and other forms of revenue generators. And given the fact that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Defense consume so much of the federal budget, it is noteworthy that the public is so reluctant to see cuts in those programs.
But pundits are confusing individual voter priorities with majority opinion. Yes, majorities oppose most cuts in spending and most tax increases. But those are not stable majorities. In other words, it is not the same people opposing ALL spending cuts and ALL tax increases. Rather, the data suggest a fragmented electorate. Some people support cutting defense spending and support raising certain taxes; others support cutting social spending and support raising other taxes. The only thing we can conclude from the polling is that no issue consistently galvanizes more than 50% of the public.
This reality is reflected in Pew polling which finds significant percentages of Americans supporting certain cuts (11% for education, 30% for defense) and in a CBS News Poll which showed 33% of Americans willing to pay more in taxes and 45% supporting eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction.
The point is that Americans aren't being stupid or hypocritical. As individuals they may be largely consistent. It is just that as a collective there is no consensus.
So yes, it is good that the political press have recognized the growing importance of the deficit in the national dialogue. That was an underrated issue for a very long time. And it is equally useful for the press to illuminate the deep divisions that exist as to where we should cut and how we should tax. Again, an issue that was papered over in previous years.
But these arguments, once underrated, are now in danger of being grossly overrated. The deficit is nowhere close to being the public's top priority; its divisions on taxes and spending are not nearly as complicated as they are being made out to be - just another case of a diverse country muddling through its disagreements.
So let's agree to put these issues back into perspective. They are now way overrated.
Arik Ben-Zvi and David Cantor are managing directors at the Glover Park Group.