The Great Debt Scare

NEW HAVEN – It might not seem that Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis and growing concern about the United States’ debt position should shake basic economic confidence. But they apparently have. And loss of confidence, by discouraging consumption and investment, can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing the economic weakness that is feared. Significant drops in consumer-confidence indices in Europe and North America already reflect this perverse dynamic.

We now have a daily index for the US, the Gallup Economic Confidence Index, so we can pinpoint changes in confidence over time. The Gallup Index dropped sharply between the first week of July and the first week of August – the period when US political leaders worried everyone that they would be unable to raise the federal government’s debt ceiling and prevent the US from defaulting on August 2. The story played out in the news media every day. August 2 came and went, with no default, but, three days later, a Friday, Standard & Poor’s lowered its rating on long-term US debt from AAA to AA+. The following Monday, the S&P 500 dropped almost 7%.

Apparently, the specter of government deadlock causing a humiliating default suddenly made the US resemble the European countries that really are teetering on the brink. Europe’s story became America’s story.

Changes in public confidence are built upon such narratives, because the human mind is very receptive to them, particularly human-interest stories. The story of a possible US default is resonant in precisely this way, implicating as it does America’s sense of pride, fragile world dominance, and political upheavals.