Americans Don't Know What They Care About

It's always both amusing and discouraging to look at public opinion polls on the budget deficit. They generally show results that make so little sense that they border on funny -- until you realize that they mean most Americans fail to understand budgets, spending, and cutting even at a very basic level. A new poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC news provides another example of this. Let's consider some of the lunacy.

A number of questions were asked in this survey, but this post will stick to just the responses surrounding the budget. The pollster provided a list of programs that could potentially be cut in the name of deficit reduction. Respondents were asked whether the cutting the program was acceptable or unacceptable.

Puzzling Observation 1: Americans do/do not care about retirees.

They do: Of the three programs that Americans thought it would be least acceptable to cut, both were related to retirees. Just 22% said it would be okay to cut Social Security, and 23% said Medicare cuts were acceptable. Clearly Americans must care about retirees, right? (K-12 education was the other beloved program.)

They don't: Not so fast. The second most acceptable cut according to respondents (52% agreed) was federal assistance to state governments. Of course, the most common reason why state governments are in so much trouble has to do with -- yes, that's right -- the very costly health and pension benefits of their employees.

What? Are retiree benefits only important if they're provided by the federal government?

Puzzling Observation 2: Americans do/do not care about the environment.

They do: The most acceptable program to cut according to the poll was subsidies to build new nuclear power plants, with 57% of respondents agreeing. This likely implies that most Americans either a) think our energy needs in future years will be easily satisfied or b) are scared of the potentially harmful environmental effects of nuclear energy. Considering that gas prices are climbing rapidly and the green energy movement is stronger than ever before, it's hard to believe a) could be right, so Americans more likely worry about the environment, right?

They don't: Not so much. The third most acceptable program to cut was the Environmental Protection Agency. The poll indicates 51% of Americans wouldn't mind if the axe fell on the EPA.

What? Okay, it's possible that Americans are just staunch libertarians and they don't want the government giving money to businesses, even in the energy space, which is why they want nuclear subsides cut -- and they mostly don't care about the environment after all. Still, a general fear of nuclear energy likely has a lot to do with this option nabbing the most acceptable to cut distinction.

Puzzling Observation 3: Americans do/do not worry about gas prices.

They do: It seems like every time gas begins to climb toward $4 per gallon, the media acts like Armageddon is almost upon us. While this does seem like it should be a serious problem for Americans, who are very reliant on gasoline, are worries exaggerated? Unfortunately the poll does not ask what economic issues Americans are concerned about. But anecdotally, it sure does seem like Americans have a problem with expensive gas.

They don't: However, other poll responses appear to imply that gas prices aren't much of a worry for Americans, despite their rise in February. I already mentioned that they don't mind if nuclear power subsidies are slashed. Obviously, more nuclear power could help keep energy prices lower. But Americans don't stop at nuclear energy subidy cuts -- 74% also wanted to see oil and gas tax credits slashed.

What? While the government taxing more oil company revenue might seem like a nice idea, since these firms are easy villains, it isn't hard to imagine what happens if these companies lose their tax credits: gasoline prices will rise even higher to replace the lost profit. But again, perhaps $4+ gasoline isn't as big a concern to Americans after all.

There are two possible explanations for these conflicting responses. First, Americans might simply fail to grasp very basic economics. That's plausible. Second, Americans might not take into account the consequences of cutting a given program. Instead, they might be judging how favorable a cut is in terms of only their opinion of the item itself, while ignoring the damage the cut could cause to those affected. That latter possibility seems a little more plausible, since economics has little to do with the first observation above about retiree benefits. Unfortunately, a failure to consider the consequences to actions is far more troubling than a weak grasp of economics.