Only 6% of Americans think Congress should concentrate on reducing the deficit or changing the tax code, according to the latest CBS News poll. Nearly ten times as many people, 56%, want it to focus on creating jobs and fixing the economy. Guess which set of policies is the center of attention in Washington right now?
Pick up any newspaper or turn on any news channel and you'll hear a lot of talk about the deficit. But creating jobs and spurring economic growth? Nobody's even discussing it.
Call them the Six Percenters. When Americans were asked which problem Congress should "concentrate on first," 4% said the deficit and 2% said taxes. That's about one person in twenty. Yet the vast apparatus of state is about to devote most of its attention to this tiny minority and its agenda. The nation's capitol is already obsessed with the Bowles/Simpson proposal, which calls itself a "deficit reduction" plan but is also focused on a tax overhaul that helps the well-to-do.
Is it surprising that over 70% of Americans are either "dissatisfied" or "angry," according to the CBS poll? The government isn't even making a serious effort to address what matters to them most - jobs and the economy. Instead, Washington is spending all its time debating deficit reduction and taxes. Worse, many opinion leaders are pushing precisely the wrong approaches to both policies. Those approaches will most Americans while benefiting the prosperous few. Meanwhile these Americans - call them the Silenced Majority - seem destined to sit and watch as their needs go unmet and their concerns go unvoiced.
If we take those CBS News poll findings and present them visually, it might help to convey the disconnect between Washington's priorities and everyone else's:
Keep that image in mind when you watch Meet the Press this weekend.
The public, the economists, and the other economists
The Campaign for America's Future co-funded a post-election poll which showed that even when deficits are being discussed, the public prefers a simple approach: Raise the payroll tax cap. The Washington elites are pretending that option doesn't exist - or that it's a "hard left" proposal (despite the fact that a majority of Republicans, and even Tea Party supporters, are behind it.) Instead, the DC consensus has coalesced around a right-wing approach that favors tax cuts for the highest earners (that's right - a deficit plan with tax cuts), along with a blend of middle-class tax hikes that will hurt most other Americans now and Social Security benefit cuts that will hurt them later.
The advisors favored by Democratic centrists won't even acknowledge that this simple, popular solution exists (see Peter Orszag playing "good cop" to Bowles' and Simpson's "bad cops" in yesterday's New York Times for the latest nonrebuttal.)
Sometimes it's necessary to take measures that the public won't like, of course, and that's the counter-argument we'll hear from Washington. But most respected economists agree with the public this time. They say that while deficit reduction is important, it's far too early to be moving toward spending cuts. Their priority for 2011 is pretty much identical to the public's : Stimulate the economy and create jobs. That calls for spending more in the short term, not less. But while the economists in question may win Nobel Prizes, they don't tend to get those advisory jobs in Washington.
So on one side of the debate we have 56% of the American public, allied with a broad array of economists that includes at least two Nobelists. On the other side we have the Washington consensus and the Six Percenters. The inside money favors the Six Percenters.
Recessions increase the deficit
You know what never gets mentioned in these deficit reduction discussions? Banks. The Great Recession's cost to the government was enormous, and those paid-back TARP funds were only a small part of the picture. That cost burden will go on for a long time, and so will the loss of revenue as people who could be working and paying taxes remain unemployed. And it will get far worse if the task of reforming Wall Street isn't finished and we experience another recession, as many economists believe we could.
No discussion of deficit reduction is complete without considering the financial reform measures we need to keep the economy - and the government - solvent in coming years. Voters want to reign in Wall Street just as much as they want to protect Social Security benefits. But you won't hear too many voices raised on their behalf in the coming months unless the President takes the lead.
Gett "it" done? Sure. But what "it" are we talking about?
This is not a happy electorate, and they're not celebrating the Republican victory. 82% think the country's on the wrong track. They're no happier now than they were before they elected this Congress, and they don't think things will get better now that they've cast their votes. Only 40% are pleased with the election's results, a sharp drop from the 63% who were pleased with the 2008 election in the same poll.
If the Democratic leadership endorses the Six Percenters' deficits-over-job approach, either passively or actively, the next election isn't likely to go much better for them than the last one - and it could be much worse. Politically, they would be compromising with a party that's less favorably regarded than they are (46% Democratic favorables vs. 42% Republican). And they'd be enacting policy the public doesn't want.
Sure, solid majorities in the CBS poll want to see "compromise." That's the poll result that centrist and appeasing Democrats will cling to when they advocate moving even further toward the center. But dig a little deeper. Her's the actual question: "Which do you think Barack Obama should do -- compromise some of his positions in order to get things done, or stick to his positions even if it means not getting enough done?" (emphasis mine)
That's a very slanted question. First, it assumes that compromise will result in getting more done. That certainly wasn't the case during either health reform or financial reform, when countless compromises were made to please Republicans who then refused to cooperate anyway. And it doesn't give any weight to what gets done, or whether it's what the public wants.
Imagine what the poll results would have been if the question had been phrased like this:
"Which do you think Barack Obama should do -- compromise some of his positions in order to do things like cut Social Security benefits and provide tax relief for the top 2% of Americans, or stick to his positions even if it means doing those things?"
A lucky few
Oh, those Six Percenters! Whether it's polling questions or prevailing Washington wisdom, they can't help it if they're lucky. To their credit, Americans are savvier than you might think. 73% believe that Obama will try to work with Republicans, while more of them believe the Republicans will refuse to cooperate (48%) than will agree to compromise (45%). Given enough time, they probably would have seen the flaws in this question.
Let's be clear: We're not suggesting that the Six Percenters hold special parliaments where they set an agenda which politicians and journalists must then follow. There's no secret institution, no invisible architecture of state that they quietly build with one another. But it seems the road gets easier for some points of view than it does for others.
Defending an unpopular majority
Nobody's saying it will be easy to resist the prevailing Washington wisdom - an ideological stance lovingly nurtured and rationalized with support from think tanks, grant money, and campaign contributions. The temptation to give upwill be great. "We have to deal with the world as we find it," David Axelrod told the Huffington Post. "The world of what it takes to get this done."
But the world as they find it is the world as they made it. And if the "this" they get done isn't what the public wants, they're the ones who'll take the blame, not the Republicans or the Six Percenters who stand to gain the most. What's more, a large majority of Americans will endure another Congressional term with nobody representing their interests. Then they'll go through the next election unable to vote for candidates who stood up for what they wanted. Let's hope a party that just got devastated by low turnout understands what that will mean.
On the other hand, if the Democrats propose popular bills that fail, people will understand why they failed. They'll see who's representing the 90% and who's representing the 6%.
Know what else is blowing a hole in the budget and increasing that deficit? Two wars. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have rung up $3 trillion in expense (and untold human suffering). And what are we doing over there? Exporting democracy. You know - the system where the government represents all the people and not just a powerful minority.
The President and the Democrats in Congress can perform a great service for their country by taking a courageous stand on behalf of most Americans. Paradoxically, the wisest and bravest thing a politician can do in Washington these days is speak for the majority. Let's hope that somebody does. It will take short-term courage, but it will reap long-term rewards.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "email@example.com."
Website: Eskow and Associates