NYU Professor John V. Kane Speaks on Voter Attitudes on Federal Deficits

New York University Professor John Kane was welcomed to the Rockefeller Center on Monday, February 20, 2023 to discuss his research with University of Maryland Professor Ian G. Anson on the role partisan bias plays in shaping voter attitudes towards federal budget deficits. Kane and Anson's 2022 paper, Deficit Attention Disorder: Partisanship, Issue Importance and Concern About Government Overspending proposes the theory that the importance voters attribute to federal budget deficits is actually a function of whether a given voter's party is in power.

In his evening lecture, titled "Do Voters Actually Care About Federal Budget Deficits? How Partisan Bias Shapes the Importance of Issues," Professor Kane unpacked the findings in this paper, sharing his hypothesis that "​​partisans will adjust the importance of deficit spending based upon the party of the incumbent president."

Professor Kane was introduced by Professor of Government and Rockefeller Center Director Jason Barabas, who expressed great pride at welcoming his former advisee to the Rockefeller Center. Barabas and Kane met a decade ago at Stony Brook University, while Barabas was serving as the chair of Kane's dissertation committee. Professors Barabas and Kane have since published together in leading political science publications, including the Journal of Politics, American Journal of Political Science, and Political Science Research & Methods.

Professor Kane's began his talk by challenging the notion that concern about federal budget deficits is an exclusively conservative or libertarian phenomenon. Sharing anecdotes like President Obama's criticism of Bush-era spending policies and Vice President Dick Cheney's notorious remark that "deficits don't matter," Professor Kane noted that customary attribution of the issue of deficit spending to the Republican Party is not always accurate.

Walking the audience through his and Professor Anson's approach in their paper, Professor Kane touched on research methods drawn from social psychology, polling, and econometrics. Specifically, Kane and Anson employed social psychology research on "trivialization" — the idea that individuals trivialize ideas that make them look bad — to form their hypothesis that partisans will shift importance away from deficit spending when their party is in power and running high federal deficits. Two statistical tests were reflected in their paper. The first aggregated survey data from the Democracy Fund to observe whether a voter identifies budget deficit as "very important." The second test gathered survey data in an experiment in which participants were shown articles about both parties engaging in high deficit spending. Both tests showed that partisans characterize deficit spending as less important when their party was engaged in it.

These findings, Kane stated, led him to conclude that we can expect large swings in perceived importance of federal budget deficits depending on which party is in power. He noted that this phenomenon poses a significant challenge for policymakers — who may either drive up their unpopularity with partisan voters of the opposite party by engaging in deficit spending, or implement highly unpopular austerity measures like raising taxes and cutting back social programs.

In the question-and-answer portion of the evening's event, Kane fielded several questions on the implications of an exceedingly high national deficit. He responded with his earlier claim that the short-term consequences of reducing the deficit for parties in power are negative. Professor Kane's insight and attentiveness to the multiple facets of a question at the intersection of economics, politics, and psychology made for a very thought-provoking evening.