Deficit hawks during the Great Depression

Polling data reveals Americans wanted balanced budgets in the 1930s. They were wrong then and they're wrong now

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 19, 2009 2:37PM (EDT)

Paul Krugman digs up some great 70-year-old polling data while linking to my "A Nation of Herbert Hoovers" post from yesterday.

The question was, why do so many Americans seem to support deficit reduction at exactly the moment when fiscal austerity could very well make matters worse?

One answer, provided by Linda Hirshman at The New Republic, is, well, actually, we're really not all that gung ho on deficit reduction. When asked what the government's economic priorities should be right now, survey respondents revealed that dealing with unemployment ranked at the top, roundly trouncing deficit reduction.

Another answer, offered by Krugman, is that "most people don't know much about macroeconomics."

What I wonder is: if you had polled Americans in 1936-37 about economic policy, what would they have said? I'm pretty sure they would have been very against deficits -- yet FDR's attempt to reduce the deficit was both economically and politically disastrous.

One of the great things about the Internet is that you can ask questions into the thin air, and a few minutes later, the thin air responds with data. Krugman later updated his post with actual polling numbers from the mid-1930s. In December 1935, Gallup found that 70 percent of Americans thought it was time "to balance the budget and start reducing the national debt."

Big mistake.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Federal Deficit How The World Works Paul Krugman Polling