This Economist/YouGov poll showing that the programs Americans are most willing to cut are also the programs that make up the smallest part of the budget has generated a lot of attention from liberal-leaning bloggers. The findings aren't terribly surprising, though: Many spending programs—and Medicare and Social Security in particular—tend to poll fairly well.
But so do tax cuts. So in as much as it's possible to assign some unified desire to the American people as a cohesive entity, what they want is an impossible combination of low taxes and comforting government-guaranteed entitlements. But of course, that's not possible—or, at the very least, it's not sustainable for any length of time.
What's missing from most of these polls, then, is that they don't ask respondents to make trade-offs. Yet it's the trade-offs that actually matter. The important question isn't whether Americans like entitlements or hate taxes, it's which one they'd prefer more, and which one they'd choose if forced to pick between the two. The polling on this question isn't as strong, but a Rasmussen survey from last year is suggestive: Asked “would you prefer a more active government with more services and higher taxes or a smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes?” 66 percent say they prefer smaller government and lower taxes, and only 25 percent say they prefer higher taxes and more public services.
But I doubt many Americans spend much time considering, in detail, what their optimal balance of taxes and services is. And there's some evidence to suggest that there's a fair bit of confusion about what tax money actually gets spent on. Would Americans make different choices about cuts if they weren't mistakenly convinced that 20 percent of the budget is spent on foreign aid? Probably. But we're not likely to see a significant increase in understanding of even the most basic details of the federal budget any time soon.
So what this actually tells us is that significant long-term deficit reduction, no matter what the method, will be extremely difficult. Americans hold a lot of contradictory, not-too-well informed beliefs that don't quite perfectly match up to the ideological convictions of either side of the deficit and spending debate, and this creates challenges for pundits, politicians, and policymakers.