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A well-kept fiscal secret

Bloomberg News published a new round of polling data last night, most of it relating to the economy and the larger fiscal debate. The results are largely in line with expectations -- most Americans prefer President Obama's debt-reduction plans over Republicans', and would like Congress to delay the sequester to avoid hurting the economy.

But there was one question in the poll that struck me as especially important: "Let's turn to the federal budget deficit. This is the amount the government spends that is more than the amount it takes in from taxes and other revenue. Is it your sense that this year the deficit is getting bigger or getting smaller, or is it staying about the same as last year?"

I put together this chart to help highlight the Bloomberg results. A 62% majority believe the deficit is getting bigger, 28% believe the deficit is staying roughly the same, and only 6% believe the deficit is shrinking.

In other words, in the midst of a major national debate over America's finances, 90% of Americans are wrong about the one basic detail that probably matters most in the conversation, while only 6% -- 6%! -- are correct.

For the record, last year, over President Obama's first four years, the deficit shrunk by about $300 billion. This year, the deficit is projected to be about $600 billion smaller than when the president took office. We are, in reality, currently seeing the fastest deficit reduction in several generations.

And yet, 90% of Americans don't believe the demonstrable, incontrovertible, entirely objective truth. It's worth pondering why.

Public ignorance on this scale is, to my mind, understandable given the political conversation. Literally every day, Republican officials proclaim that the deficit is spiraling out of control, threatening the fate of Western Civilization As We Know It. The media often fails to play a constructive role, with news organizations playing along, telling the public that the deficit is necessarily a bad thing, and that policymakers have a responsibility to address it immediately.

Indeed, for the typical American news consumer, I imagine there's an assumption that comes alongside the fiscal debate: "The deficit must be getting bigger in a hurry, otherwise it'd be stupid for Washington to invest so much time and energy on this issue, instead of other pressing matters."

But the facts are the facts, even if only 6% of the country is aware of them.