Paul Krugman draws attention to the American Senator and right wing ideologue Rand Paul who complains about the evils of “running a trillion-dollar deficit every year” – which, as it happens, is not at all what is happening; the deficit is at around $600 billion and falling fast. This follows on Eric Cantor – the House majority leader – talking about “growing deficits”, when deficits are in fact shrinking.
Krugman reckons that “it’s pretty clear that Paul actually has no idea that the deficit is falling; it’s quite possible that neither does Cantor. The whole incident reminds me of 2011, when supposedly well-informed candidates like Tim Pawlenty went on about soaring government employment during a time of unprecedented cuts in the public payroll. Once you’re inside the closed conservative information loop, you know lots of things that aren’t so”.
The question is, though, what the public knows when it has this drivel driven into its brain all the time. A 1996 poll asked voters whether the deficit had increased or decreased under Clinton (it had, in fact, fallen sharply). A plurality of voters — and a heavy majority of Republicans — thought the deficit had gone up. Krugman reckons that result would be repeated if they did it now.
OK, switch to the UK. A new survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London highlights how wrong the British public can be on the make-up of the population and the scale of key social policy issues. The top ten misperceptions are:
- Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates: we think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%.
- Crime: 58% do not believe that crime is falling, when the Crime Survey for England and Wales shows that incidents of crime were 19% lower in 2012 than in 2006/07 and 53% lower than in 1995. 51% think violent crime is rising, when it has fallen from almost 2.5 million incidents in 2006/07 to under 2 million in 2012..
- Job-seekers allowance: 29% of people think we spend more on JSA than pensions, when in fact we spend 15 times more on pensions (£4.9bn vs £74.2bn).
- Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100.
- Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).
- Religion: we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales. And we underestimate the proportion of Christians: we estimate 34% on average, compared with the actual proportion of 59% in England and Wales.
- Immigration and ethnicity: the public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%. There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups).
- Age: we think the population is much older than it actually is – the average estimate is that 36% of the population are 65+, when only 16% are.
- Benefit bill: people are most likely to think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+. In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.
- Voting: we underestimate the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – our average guess is 43%, when 65% of the electorate actually did (51% of the whole population).
And there is, I suspect, a lot more. An example : the idea that our current economic woes were caused by over-generous governments rather than imprudent bankers has now entered the popular consciousness, and it cannot be moved. So what should be done? I think the Labour Party at the next election should simply put up a series of posters highlighting the difference between what is being claimed to happen, and what is happening. The debt has grown, not fallen, under the Tories. Economic recovery has been slower than almost any other comparable economy. Taxes on the rich have been reduced. Numbers of police and nurses have fallen. Crime fell under Labour. Education results improved. Social programmes worked. More kids went to university under Labour, whereas there are reports of falling numbers at the moment. I know that a lie is halfway around the world before truth has its boots on, but we should at least be able to put a few trip-wires on its route.