StanCollender'sCapitalGainsandGames Washington, Wall Street and Everything in Between

All Pronouncements About What "The American People" Want on the Budget Need to be Seriously Doubted

08 Feb 2011
Posted by Stan Collender

There have already been lots of polls that purport to say what Americans are really thinking and feeling about the federal budget; there will be many more in the weeks ahead.  My column in today's Roll Call explains why no one should take what's typically said about those polls seriously.  (Note: My thanks to CG&G's own Bruce Bartlett for very conveniently listing some of the recent polls in this piece over at The Fiscal Times.  He and I share a fascination/frustration with this topic.)

Why the Numbers Don’t Tell the Whole Story

By Stan Collender
Roll Call Contributing Writer

I’m always more than a little suspicious, if not outright skeptical, when I hear an elected official claim to know what the “American people” want Congress and the White House to do about the federal budget.

It’s not just that most such statements always seem to validate that person’s proposal of the moment; it’s that what he’s saying never seems to be based on anything more than a very ad hoc interpretation of the political tea leaves. In reality, most aspects of American politics are far too multifaceted and nuanced to be addressed with a simple and easy-to-describe policy change on a single issue.

This is especially true when it comes to the federal budget. Poll after poll shows that, when you look at the full picture, Americans aren’t at all definitive about what to do about the issue or how to do it. In fact, the most consistent finding of statistically significant, nonpartisan national polls about the federal budget is that Americans are remarkably inconsistent: They want the deficit reduced or eliminated but, with very limited exceptions, they don’t want to cut spending or increase taxes to do it.

For example, an Ipsos/Reuters poll conducted last month showed that a whopping 71 percent of respondents said the federal debt ceiling shouldn’t be increased. That seemingly incontrovertible result, which flew around the blogosphere, was actually at odds with another finding: The same poll uncovered just as little enthusiasm for cutting most types of spending. While cuts to foreign aid were very popular (73 percent supported them) and about half the respondents said the Pentagon budget should be reduced, very few people wanted Social Security or Medicare touched and fewer than 25 percent favored reductions in education.

If you factor in the national debt, which can’t be cut by legislative fiat or voter preference, and leave untouched the spending that the respondents wanted to preserve, the remaining spending that could be sacrificed isn’t enough to eliminate the deficit and to stop the government from further borrowing — even though almost three-quarters of the respondents said that’s not what they want.

These extreme contradictions aren’t atypical. A Gallup poll from late January showed a similar lack of interest in cutting almost anything but foreign aid, even though only 16 percent supported raising the debt ceiling without a deficit reduction agreement in place. That followed a Gallup poll in December that showed very little support for tax increases on anyone but the wealthy.

And just to put an exclamation point on this, a CNN/Opinion Research poll taken at about the same time as the January Gallup poll also found that about 70 percent of respondents wanted the deficit reduced in general, but equal or higher percentages opposed spending reductions in areas that could actually significantly lessen the government’s red ink.

All of this demonstrates three things. First, anyone who insists that Americans are unambiguous about tackling the budget is misreading or misstating the actual situation. Yes, polls consistently show strong opposition to federal debt and strong support for reducing the deficit. But they also show outright hostility to virtually all of the policy changes that would make it possible to substantially reduce the deficit and the amount the government borrows. Anyone who uses only one part of the results to justify his or her proposal or vote, or to condemn others, is cherry-picking the results and should be called out for it.

Second, even though the budget is a numbers problem, these deep contradictions clearly show that the budget is not a rational issue for most Americans; it’s an emotional issue, and that’s why policymakers, interest groups and others typically fail to gain much traction in the debate with graphs and charts.  Desires, dreams and hopes are more important than statistics.

Third, these emotional responses expose the pitfalls of focusing on spending reductions and tax increases. That approach is based on a negative emotion — fear of what will be lost — instead of emphasizing the positive possibilities of a future when the deficit is no longer a concern. We’ll know the federal budget debate has changed when that is what’s being debated, rather than cherry-picked polling results.

People are not really being

People are not really being inconsistent. Asking them about the deficit is really asking "all else being equal, should we cut the deficit?" Of course the answer is yes. Relax the "all else being equal" and you get another answer.

People want spending to continue and taxes raised on high income earners. These are more important than abstract deficit issues.

You'll also find jobs and the economy are much higher more important than cutting the deficit.

It's not inconsistent, it's a question of priorities. Polling answers are very consistent about what the public wants politicians to do.

The polls do not show Americans are irrational

Let's say 80% of people want the deficit to be cut. Let's say 20% would do it by cutting Social Security, 20% by cutting Medicare, 20% by cutting Medicaid, and 20% by cutting defense. Then, the polls could show 80% support for cutting the deficit, and only 20% support for cutting any individual program, and 0% support for raising taxes, without anyone being irrational.

The problem is that we have gotten ourselves into a position from which there is not simple exit. It is quite likely that there is not majority support for any path out of this situation; and since our government is designed to make it difficult to change course without majority support, we risk being paralyzed into our current policies until fiscal collapse.

Nor are they inappropriately emotional

Rather than calling these "emotional responses," call them "life or death responses." Because, if these entitlement programs are cut, people will die. And that negative emotion you refer to "fear of what will be lost," well, yes. They are afraid they will be homeless. They will not be able to assist their children with education or any other expenses. They are afraid they will lose their freedom of action, their health, and their life. Really, truly, what does the future without a deficit (an impossibility given our military commitments, by the way), have to offer someone who is 48, without the independent wealth to allow starting a new business, who is saving as hard as he can, 20% of his gross income, amounting to $11,000 per year? Reducing these programs will reduce such a person to penury or death.

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