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There’s little public consensus on how to tackle inflation, new poll shows

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A supermarket worker in the produce department.

When pressed about fighting inflation, survey participants say they want to hold the line on prices for essentials, says Eric Plutzer of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. But "those policies require the Congress and the president to work together." Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

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Fighting inflation has become one of the most important issues for policymakers and average Americans alike. According to the consumer price index for May, prices rose 8.6% from a year earlier, the highest such rate since December 1981.

However, Americans were split on how the government should handle rising prices, as well as whom they trusted to address the problem. A new survey from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, in collaboration with APM Research Lab, highlights where Americans stand in the fight against inflation. One big takeaway from the survey was that a lot of people don’t trust institutions like the Federal Reserve, Congress or the White House to deal with inflation.

“I think the American public is kind of all over the place. There’s no consensus even among people within the same political party,” said Eric Plutzer, a political science professor at Pennsylvania State University and director of polling at the McCourtney Institute. Marketplace’s Sabri Ben-Achour spoke with Plutzer, about the survey results and what they can tell us about peoples’ perception of the economy. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Sabri Ben-Achour: One of the most striking things about the survey is just the sheer amount of disagreement between Americans on how to combat inflation. What do you make of that?

Eric Plutzer: Yeah, I think the American public is kind of all over the place. There’s no consensus even among people within the same political party. And if we were to reduce this, you’d say, “The public is concerned. They want the government to do something, anything, but they’re really not sure what that should be.” And if pressed, people will say, “Reduce government spending,” or “Hold the line on prices,” on essentials for, like, housing, gasoline and health care. But here’s the catch: All of those policies require the Congress and the president to work together. And when we asked them, they don’t really seem to have much confidence in the White House or the Congress or the Federal Reserve.

Ben-Achour: More than 1 in 5 surveyed said they didn’t know what the best way to fight inflation was. That was the second-most popular response. Of course, one of the main ways to fight inflation is through the Federal Reserve. What does the fact that people are so uncertain about what to do tell you about how people think about the economy?

Plutzer: So relatively few people thought the Fed ought to have a great deal of influence over inflation policy. And so that puts the public at odds with expert opinion and traditional policymaking.

Ben-Achour: But another issue here is trust. Sixty-six percent of participants said they trusted the American public’s opinion to decide economic policy, as opposed to the government or CEOs. How did you come up with that response as an option? And what do you think it means?

Plutzer: I think it simply represents a distrust of the large institutions in society. But I don’t think people have thought through exactly what that would mean in terms of trusting the people. We don’t have direct democracy for economic policy, and only 1 in 10 really thought that we should just let the free market figure things out on its own. And so I don’t think they literally mean that we should have a large plebiscite where ordinary people decide on economic policy, but I think it’s simply throwing up their hands and saying, “We don’t really trust our elected leaders, and we don’t trust our appointed leaders at the Fed. And we certainly don’t trust big business to play a productive role in getting us out of this crisis.”

Ben-Achour: In your survey CEOs were, like, the least-trusted entities to shape the economy or help with inflation.

Plutzer: That’s right. Yeah, the leaders of big business came in dead last in the poll. And if you look at the answers to open-ended questions where we let citizens explain their answers in their own words, the most common word that comes up with respect to CEOs is “gouge,” as in price gouging. And so in years past, [former President] Jimmy Carter, for example, would bring together a bunch of business executives, and [there would] be a photo op, and that would be to show that he was serious about fighting inflation. It’s hard to imagine that President [Joe] Biden could do that and have that work out as something that would be positively received by Americans.

Ben-Achour: The fact that views vary so widely on who to trust, what actions to take to fight inflation, you know, that combined with our very polarized political system, what does that mean for how we as a society deal with complex economic problems like inflation?

Plutzer: Yeah, that’s a great question, Sabri. I’m afraid from my perspective, the answers are not especially positive. It seems to me that the state of public opinion makes it easy for elected officials to simply use this as a way of targeting others and creating villains in the narrative. And on the other hand, it probably lays the groundwork for lots of gimmicks being proposed by politicians. And I think in this environment, politicians and leaders will be looking for gimmicks that might attract public attention and might seem positive to members of the public in the short term.

Ben-Achour: What do you think the, like, appropriate response here would be from politicians? I mean, are they supposed to sort of try to give the American public an economics lesson and say, “You know, well, this is how the Federal Reserve works, and we’re not able to affect inflation by doing XYZ.” What are they supposed to do? What would be healthy for our democracy for them to do?

Plutzer: That approach was one that was taken in years past, I think if you go back to earlier inflation crises. But it’s difficult to imagine today that the public would have much attention for that, that various news outlets would carry it. And it’s difficult to imagine that [a] majority of Americans would trust the president rather than just dismiss it.

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