Five Years after the Crash: What Americans Think about Wall Street, Banks, Business, and Free Enterprise

By Bowman, Karlyn; Rugg, Andrew | AEI Paper & Studies, September 2013 | Go to article overview

Five Years after the Crash: What Americans Think about Wall Street, Banks, Business, and Free Enterprise


Bowman, Karlyn, Rugg, Andrew, AEI Paper & Studies


In September 2008, Americans were focused on an extraordinary series of events in the financial markets and government responses to them. Although the problems in the financial sector had begun earlier, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the bailout of AIG, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in receivership, and a possible stock market meltdown concentrated their attention. Polls from the fall of 2008 showed that Americans were frightened about the health of our financial system. The Reuters/University of Michigan October preliminary report on consumer sentiment registered "its largest monthly decline in the [50-plus-year] history of the surveys." Other surveys showed that many Americans feared an economic collapse. How have attitudes changed since then? Over the past five years, pollsters have asked Americans hundreds of questions about the crisis and the events that followed that help us answer that question.

Public uncertainty about the US economic future has been high for the past five years. Although the National Bureau of Economic Research tells us that the recession ended in June 2009, its effects are still being felt throughout the land, and they have left a significant imprint on many aspects of public opinion, including confidence in institutions. There is some evidence that Americans believe the economy has begun to recover, but it is tentative and inconsistent at best.

At the American Enterprise Institute, we study public opinion on many different topics. In recent months, we have prepared public opinion reports on the environment, homosexuality and gay marriage, and National Security Agency surveillance. For our research, we draw on polls in the public domain. By that, we mean that we do not conduct polls of our own. Today there are more than a dozen national pollsters in the field providing regular surveys of attitudes using trusted methods. What we do is unique: we compare the questions asked by the major pollsters and analyze their results. To do our work, we also use the invaluable poll archive of the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, which is the largest data trove of its kind in the world. All of the trend data we use in this document appears in the appendix.

Polls have limitations, and we are well aware of them. Response rates are low. How questions are worded can pull people in one direction or another, especially when public knowledge is low. This is particularly true in times of crisis when attitudes can be volatile. The time frame in which questions are asked is also important. In today's fast moving news cycle, concerns of the moment can color opinions on related (and sometimes unrelated) issues. We do not believe any single poll or question can capture the public's mood. But looking at many polls with different wordings does provide a good sense of Americans' true feelings.

Polls often reveal areas of substantial continuity, but we also see considerable change and many contradictions. That is one of the reasons we do not believe polls should be used to make policy. They are too crude for that purpose. But by comparing hundreds of individual survey questions, we hope to provide an objective and informative account of how Americans felt about business five years ago and how they feel now.

We begin by examining public opinion in September 2008, when the public began paying attention to what was happening in the markets. We then look at attitudes about Wall Street and, separately, banks and business. The next section examines how public views of regulation changed as a result of the crash. We also look at the health of the free enterprise system.

September 2008

The Roper Center archive includes more than 1,800 survey questions asked September 1--15, 2008, the period preceding the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, and the impending collapse of AIG. Most are about the historic 2008 presidential campaign between Senators Barack Obama and John McCain. …

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