Polling the Budget

Stan Collender blogs a tricky situation facing politicians: voters consistently say they'd rather cut spending than raise taxes to reduce the deficit. But when you ask them what they want to cut, the only program there is strong support for cutting is foreign aid . . . which is like trying to pay off your credit cards by slashing your chewing gum budget.

What I'd really like to see is a poll which reads off a list of the major areas in the federal budget, names the percent of the federal budget they compose, and then asks people which of these areas they think should be cut in order to close the deficit. Obviously, you couldn't get too deep with this, since people can't remember more than five or six numbers at a time. But the answer would be more interesting than noting that people with a poor command of the federal budget think we should cut the enormous fantasy programs they think are wasting all of our tax dollars.

Even more interesting would be if you paired this with some realistic tax math--if you made it clear to them that the budget gap also cannot be closed simply by raising taxes on "the rich", but rather that it probably involves a broad-based regressive tax like the VAT.

But this would be very complicated, which is, I presume, why it hasn't been done.

Update: Ezra Klein pulls this graph from the Wall Street Journal to illustrate the problem


Meanwhile, one of my commenters says:

There are two points that you are missing. Conservatives (and libertarians) like to go on and on about how Americans are generally fiscally conservative. Polls like this one show that Americans are generally fiscally clueless. Americans certainly ARE socially conservative in lot of ways (we're more religious, more invested in the institution of marriage, etc.), but the idea that Americans are prone to being fiscally conservative is a fiction. It's a fiction that a lot of American believe, but still.

The point is that they agree with you less than you seem to assume that they do. In fact, they like entitlements and defense spending quite a bit. Informed libertarianism is very much a minority position.

Having said that, that doesn't mean you are wrong. I (who am way left in sentiment, but sympathetic to libertarian policy ideas) agree with you about these things being real problems. Entitlement spending and defense spending are out of control, and dealing with those issues is a real political need.

But this poll suggest to me that we should stop claiming that Americans are fiscally conservative. We should start claiming that either Americans like to think of themselves that way or that Americans are by and large, completely incoherent when it comes to economic stuff.

I promise you, I have never been under the illusion that my political beliefs were anything other than a (very) minority position. Nor are any other libertarians I know. Still, I think this is not quite right.

Saying "Americans are fiscal conservatives" is, by and large, simply a statement of how they rank relative to national or international political discourse--not a precise allocation of where they fall on the political curve. Faced with a choice between raising taxes and cutting spending, they generally seem to favor cutting spending, even when the taxes to fund the spending are very progressive.

Now, I quite agree that these polls show that this may be based on a misperception of where the money goes. On the other hand, they also misperceive how progressive the tax system is. If properly informed, and then asked questions, would they want taxes raised or spending cut? Given their knee jerk responses, I suspect that they might start to feel differently about Medicare and Social Security if they understood that the alternative was the equivalent of a 10% sales tax on every item. But that's only a guess, and it might well be wrong.

So in some ideal universe where they are fully informed about the options, maybe they're not fiscally conservative. On the other hand, maybe they are. But in this universe, where they are very poorly informed, their expressed preference is for spending cuts over tax increases.

Think of it this way: perhaps in some ideal universe where you could sit down with his platonic self and go over all the options, your drug addicted cousin would choose to dry out. But that doesn't allow you to say that he doesn't want to do the drugs in this universe. He does, which is why he's out trying to score right now. It's appropriate to call him a drug addict even if he wouldn't be one in a perfect world full of perfect information.

The analogy is imperfect, because we're talking about stated preference versus revealed preference. But we don't have any way to get at revealed preference, other than the incredibly messy task of trying to sort out why they voted the way they did. Which brings you right back to the polls.

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