Do Citizens Care About Public Debt? Comparing the U.S. and Europe

March 28, 2013

Do citizens care about public debt?  Due to the lack of research on this topic it is hard to provide a concise answer to this question, but through research projects similar to Dr. Karsten Mause’s, an answer might be possible.  On March 28th, Dr. Mause presented his research on a number of public opinion polls that addressed the concerns of citizens on public debt.  Dr. Mause analyzed different polling outcomes, like the Pew Research Center’s studies, to formulate his perspective on the public opinion of debt.  By using different public opinion polls, Dr. Mause was able to determine that citizens are concerned about their countries’ public debt.

While Dr. Mause’s analysis showed that citizens are concerned about their countries public debt,  there were alternative findings as well. EU countries that have the least economic pressure were more concerned than others—one region in particular being the Nordic region.  The results also showed that there is no global aversion to austerity, but the citizens were averse to cuts and/or tax increases.  Dr. Mause pointed out that program or budget cuts are always unpopular, but they were more popular than tax cuts in all cases.  This might offer insight on the trend of states moving away from big government policies.  In most cases the poll data showed that the public felt that cuts needed to encompass foreign aid and military spending.  In the case of most countries, especially the United States, foreign aid/economic support is relatively small when compared to all other areas of government spending.

This study also attempted to discover if there are any repercussions to supporting austere policies, and this would be measured by “voter punishment.”  It is hard to make a strong correlation between these two variables because both studies found different results.  Another issue with this level of analysis is that other factors can play a role in the public opinion, not just austerity.  Dr. Mause also pointed out other political trends.  One trend was that as a government “leans” to the left, its support of austerity decreases.  However, this does present one issue.  It is hard to determine what is exactly left or right; the study that was used will obviously use different metrics to determine a countries’ political alignment, which makes it difficult to analyze.  Another point that was discussed was that to save face, policymakers will make leaner cuts.  One anecdotal reference that was made during the presentation was that more often than not federal cuts tend to target infrastructure programs, with the reason being that “streets do not protest” such targeted cuts.  These factors, coupled with trends in public disapproval of their government, certainly attribute to the findings that Dr. Mause presented.

Research like Dr. Mause’s is important because it can be used to close the gap between the political elite and the public sector they serve.  To summarize, Dr. Mause’s research provides analysis that supports the claim that there is concern amongst citizens about the debt their country has, or is acquiring.  With all statistical analysis, it is important to remember that the data is comprised of a “snapshot” of the population, which Dr. Mause pointed out.  The samples are entirely random, and reliable data can be difficult to acquire.  With that said, it seems that public opinion is in favor of austerity, but when they are questioned on how to make specific cuts or tax increases, the public poll data offers no clear answer to the mitigation of public debt.

Dr. Karsten Mause is Assistant Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Political Science at the University of Münster (Germany) and Research Affiliate of the DFG-funded Research Center “Transformations of the State” (SFB 597) at the University of Bremen. He received an M.A. in Political Science and a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Marburg. His current research interests include the political economy of fiscal policy and the new political economy of politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups. His research has been published in journals including the American Journal of Economics & SociologyConstitutional Political EconomyEuropean Journal of Law & EconomicsGerman PoliticsJournal of Legislative Studies, Parliamentary Affairs, and other academic outlets.