The ongoing irrelevance of debt-ceiling polls

Can reasonable adults at least agree that these polls are meaningless, since the public is being asked to consider a question it doesn’t understand?

The debate over whether to raise the legal limit on government borrowing has riveted Americans, with a large majority worried about the potential consequences regardless of whether Congress votes to allow the national debt to keep increasing.

But when pressed to name their biggest concern, nearly half of respondents say they are alarmed by the prospect that the debt could grow beyond its current limit of $14.3 trillion, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll. Only 35 percent say they are more worried about the risk of default and economic destabilization if Congress does not raise the debt limit.

Other recent polls show similar results. They’re irrelevant, too.

I saw one astute observer compare these surveys to asking Americans which medical treatments are safer than others. It’s an apt comparison — poll respondents may have opinions on the matter, and they may have heard bits of information about competing options, but they lack the knowledge and understanding to make those opinions valuable.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: policymakers simply must ignore debt-ceiling polls. The public has no meaningful understanding of what the debt ceiling is, what happens if interest rates go up, what causes interest rates to go up, the global economic consequences of a potential default, or even what default is.

This is one of those classic dynamics in which responsible policymakers realize that they know more about the subject matter than the public at large, so they have to do the right thing, even if the uninformed find it distasteful — knowing that the disaster that would follow would be far more unpopular.

Put it this way: what if the poll had asked, “Would you rather raise the debt ceiling or risk a global economic catastrophe and massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare?” The results, I suspect, might have turned out differently.

Or maybe not. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The public is wrong, and Americans need sensible leaders to do the right thing, even if they’re confused about what that is.