Are counterintuitive policies politically possible?

Lately I’ve been wrestling with the idea that “common sense” will always win out when policy is rendered through appeals to public opinion. That is, whatever option seems most intuitively correct — even if theory or empirical data suggest it’s wrong — will gather the most public support and will have the best chance of being translated into policy. This function might wax and wane with populism in general, such that in the crisis moments when populism peaks, common sense has its greatest sway over policy outcomes.

Our current economic black hole and the associated “debate” over raising the debt ceiling — which is not so much a debate as two sides agreeing about what must be done with one side nonetheless demanding payment for doing so — provide a terrific test case. Since becoming aware of the existence of the federal debt on January 20, 2009, many Republicans have leaned heavily on the common sense notion that, once in debt, further spending just makes things worse. “On what planet do they try to reduce the deficit by spending even more?” Tim Pawlenty asked the crowd at CPAC. And of course, that feels right to many people — after all, spending must be what got us in debt in the first place.

But also of course, it’s totally wrong. People and organizations spend to get out of debt all the time — it’s called investing. As an example, when I left the workforce to go to grad school, I had household debt. Nevertheless, I took on more debt in the form of student loans to cover my first year. Now I have a higher-paying job, more opportunity for advancement and less debt. Likewise, firms that are in the red borrow so that they continue to spend money, hopefully in ways that will increase future revenue and take them into profit. This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even Keynesian economics, which suggests that the government should engage in counter-cyclical budgeting (that is, spending in bad times and saving in good times) in order to offset lost demand from the private sector, also encouraging deficit spending in the current economic climate.

And yet, 63% of Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling. Votes to raise the debt ceiling typically succeed, but they also are often undertaken in a partisan fashion, which may ultimately leave many Democratic members of Congress vulnerable to “Rep. So-and-So voted to raise the debt ceiling and enable Obama’s shopping spree!” attacks. Perhaps this all goes back to the catch-all explanation for poor policy and contradictory bits of public opinion: Too many people don’t know anything, but think they know enough to have formed fairly solid opinions. That’s a really unsatisfying conclusion for a variety of reasons, but it’s hard not to see at the core of politicians’ ability to exploit the public’s reflexive reliance on “common sense” as a policy foundation.

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