Tribalism and Taxes

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What kinds of things are likely to make the federal deficit go up? Larry Bartels breaks down a recent poll on this question and discovers an odd relationship.

Spending is the most obvious suspect. If you think spending will be higher under one candidate or the other, you should think that the deficit will also be higher. And people do think that. But only a little bit.

How about economic growth? The relationship there is stronger. If you believe a candidate will preside over higher economic growth, you also tend to think he’ll deliver lower deficits.

But the strongest relationship by far was to taxes. Specifically, to people’s expectations about their own taxes:

However, the direction of this relationship was precisely the opposite of what straightforward fiscal logic would suggest: people who expected higher taxes under Obama also expected a bigger budget deficit under Obama, other things being equal, while those who expected higher taxes under Romney also expected a bigger budget deficit under Romney. This…was easily the most important single determinant of deficit expectations even among people with above-average levels of political information.

I’d argue that although logically this doesn’t make a lot of sense, it probably does emotionally. Tribalism prods us to believe that one tribe produces only good things and the other produces only bad things. So if you belong to Team Obama, then you figure that Romney will produce entirely bad policies. And since higher personal taxes and higher budget deficits are both bad, they go together. Ditto for Team Romney supporters. Thus does tribalism make fools of us all.


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