What Americans Think About the Budget

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. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ||

    I think you hit it right on the money. Now the question is what can be done about it besides absolutely nothing?

    Dede
    www.surfing-anonymity.br.tc

  • PIRS||

    Are you related to Tiger?

  • ||

    Breaking News: New study suggests that the vast majority of Americans want a free lunch.

  • Jeffersonian||

    With dessert. And wine. And a big-titted waitress in something clingy.

    Now.

  • ||

    It's not *their* pony that's the problem, it's everyone else's.

  • ||

    If everyone will forgive the crosspost, here's what I said on Boing Boing about this: The survey and commentary misses an obvious problem: the terms are so general they slant the survey. If you ask people if they want to "cut education," most will think of the wonderfulness of education and say "no." But if you ask them if NYC should cut the $65 million a year it spends on "Temporary Reassignment Centers" (a.k.a. "rubber rooms") for teachers accused of crimes up to and including molesting students, where they are paid full salaries for years to watch DVDs and play cards and sleep, I think you'd get 90% "yes" and 9% "Hell, yes!"

    Similarly, ask about "highways" and people think of maintaining freeways. But ask them what they think of the fact that 1,690 people at the Department of Transportation now make $170,000/year or more, plus benefits and pension and job security us peons can only dream about, and I'll bet you get a very different answer. (Oh, and before the recession started, only one person at DoT made over $170K.)

  • Article||

    The highest-paid federal employees are doing best of all on salary increases. Defense Department civilian employees earning $150,000 or more increased from 1,868 in December 2007 to 10,100 in June 2009, the most recent figure available.

    When the recession started, the Transportation Department had only one person earning a salary of $170,000 or more. Eighteen months later, 1,690 employees had salaries above $170,000.
    ...
    Key reasons for the boom in six-figure salaries:

    •Pay hikes. Then-president Bush recommended — and Congress approved — across-the-board raises of 3% in January 2008 and 3.9% in January 2009. President Obama has recommended 2% pay raises in January 2010, the smallest since 1975. Most federal workers also get longevity pay hikes — called steps — that average 1.5% per year.

    •New pay system. Congress created a new National Security Personnel System for the Defense Department to reward merit, in addition to the across-the-board increases. The merit raises, which started in January 2008, were larger than expected and rewarded high-ranking employees. In October, Congress voted to end the new pay scale by 2012.

    •Pay caps eased. Many top civil servants are prohibited from making more than an agency's leader. But if Congress lifts the boss' salary, others get raises, too. When the Federal Aviation Administration chief's salary rose, nearly 1,700 employees' had their salaries lifted above $170,000, too.

  • ||

    Any cites on where you got this data? Not arguing, just flabbergasted.

  • Mo||

    If you say cut defense a lot of people will say no. However, if you say should we only spend as much on defense as Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany, Iran, Pakistan and India combined, a lot of people will say that's more than enough. And you'll cut over $200B from the budget.

  • ||

    Mo|4.9.10 @ 8:03PM|#
    "If you say cut defense a lot of people will say no. However, if you say should we only spend as much on defense as Russia, China, the UK, France, Germany, Iran, Pakistan and India combined, a lot of people will say that's more than enough."
    That's true enough, but if you phrase the question cleverly enough, you can probably get people to agree that to all sorts of things. Some might think about the presumptions and question them.

    "And you'll cut over $200B from the budget."
    And that won't begin to cover the current (like "close to nothing") interest charges:
    http://www.usgovernmentspendin.....pie_gs.php
    I'm personally tired of paying the costs of being the world's cop as we listen to Euro-trash lecture us. All the while free-riding on our defense budget.
    Maybe the world is now of such a state that there is no reason for any country to pay for defense; I'm not convinced, and I am convinced that most everyone else is more than happy to have us provide that.

  • PIRS||

    Here is an idea to help ease this divide. If you want a government program to exist you help foot part of the bill. If not enough people donate enough money to foot the bill it does not survive. If George Soros wants the Food Stamp program to continue I am sure he has enough money to support a sizable portion of the bill. He can also get his friends in Hollywood to contribute. It might actually be cheaper than funding Moveon.org etc.

  • ||

    +1

  • &||

    Politicians don't care a whit about charity.
    It's all about compulsion. Pure power lust.

  • Gene Berkman||

    "what they want is an impossible combination of low taxes and comforting government-guaranteed entitlements."

    The enthusiasm for "supply-side" economics In the late 1970s was a response to this. The real insight that lowering tax rates generates economic growth, which leads to increased tax revenue became suddenly a magic formula that said you did not need to cut government in order to cut taxes.

    When tax receipts went up under Reagan after the income tax rates were cut, supply siders felt vindicated. But revenues did not go up enough to cover normal growth of spending, let alone the military buildup of the Reagan years.

    When George W Bush was President, the supply side experiment was tried, but the spending growth was massively greater than under Reagan, and we are still living with the deficits.

  • JohnD||

    And what the hell is your hero Obama doing if not making it even worse....?

  • ||

    I'm not sure Obama is his/her hero.
    The comment is valid; add income to a government, it will add that *plus* costs and 'currently acceptable 'debt and spend *that* amount.
    Legaliziing dope and taxing it just means the politicos will add estimated X tax increases to Y fudge factor and spend that.
    I don't think we care about the most efficient manner of increasing government revenues; our aim should be to reduce them.

  • Kreel Sarloo||

    Imagine you are a moron. Imagine you are JohnD. But I repeat myself.

  • Jersey Patriot||

    Tax receipts plunged after Reagan's tax cuts. That's one reason Reagan would raise taxes another 12-14 times (depends how you count it) during his last 6 years. For example, he passed a massive tax increase to save Social Security from bankruptcy. Those taxes fall primarily on the working poor and middle class. And again, a year after he passed his 1982 tax cut, he passed legislation clawing back a third of the cuts by closing tax loopholes.

    Seriously, don't buy the myths. Get the facts.

  • ||

    For example, he passed a massive tax increase to save Social Security from bankruptcy. Those taxes fall primarily on the working poor and middle class.

    Since they are the people who will most need SS, then they should be the ones who fund it. My guess is most of the upper income people could forgo SS entirely and would agree to do so if they could also stop paying into it.

  • thinker||

    To be honest, I wouldn't mind letting Americans have the option to design their own simple budget in their taxes. That is, have Congress establish and describe around 10 categories of spending (one of which would be the general fund), and let taxpayers decide what percentage of their payment goes into what category. If they don't fill out the form, it all goes into the general fund.

    If they're scared that the top one percent of income earners would suddenly have too much budgetary power (if only in a very indirect way), they could only make it applicable to everything under the highest tax bracket.

  • liberty_equality_solidarity||

    Almost, why have congress at all? We could just start directly electing department heads (popular-oversight, same number of elections, and they would actually have some sort of mandate - maybe even axing bureaucratic rot) they've given all of their powers to the executive branch anyways - if were going to have a large national government, it seems wise to at least divide the executive powers

  • thinker||

    It would still be worthwhile to have a full-time legislative body to draft legal changes, provided that these laws have a built-in sunset and meet popular approval.

  • Chad||

    Here is a better idea. Let's say the deficit going forward is projected to be $600 billion per year. Let's have a panel of Democrats and Republicans come up with twenty policy changes (ten revenue increasers, ten spending cuts) that each reduce the deficit by $60 billion per year each. Then have everyone vote, each person picking five, perhaps with a ranking, and the top ten being implemented.

    How is THAT for fun?

  • ||

    It would be cruel to make politicians responsible for the debt they've amassed, Chad. Politicians have to do popular things like spending lots of money in order to keep their jobs. Why do you want to take away the politicians' livelihoods, Chad? Aren't politicians people too?

  • Chad||

    Push the retirement age towards 70 and implement a 5% VAT and a $30/ton CO2 carbon tax.

    Most problems solved.

  • ||

    Sure, Chad, just think of the kind of deficits Congress would run if the federal government had even more revenue coming in.

  • ||

    Allow significant tax-deferred retirement savings and tax-free medical savings for all, pay off Social Security and Medicare for anyone under 50 into those accounts, and cover those who are poor when they reach 70 with welfare and Medicaid.

    Solves at least one more problem: government getting bigger than it needs to be!

  • Chad||

    43% of non-retired adults have less than $10,000 saved for retirement.

    How do you plan to pay for tens of millions of poor retirees?

  • Jeffersonian||

    Phase out Social Security and Medicare, then you stop taking their earning away from them.

  • JohnD||

    Frankly, I'm sick and tired of people calling Medicare an entitlement. I paid Medicare taxes for 40 years while working, and now that I'm retired, I pay a monthly premiem that s actually higher than I was paying for health insurance while working.

    Medicare and SS is broke because the crooks in Washington spend the money an their pet projects.

  • ||

    How do you plan to pay for tens of millions of poor retirees?

    Who's "we" Kemosabe? I'm desparately trying to save for my own retirement, but I have this legion of bloodsuckers and leeches on my back, siphoning off my hard-earned capital and giving it to other people.

    I can only dream about having another 16% of my income that I could save and invest for retirement. I might not have to be a inter-generational sponge.

  • Chad||

    I was addressing MikeP's "plan".

    and cover those who are poor when they reach 70 with welfare and Medicaid.

    I am sure you do not have a plan to deal with the large majority of people who wouldn't save the 16%, either. Throw dog food at them? Run them over in your SUV? Or just shoot them?

  • ||

    I am sure you do not have a plan to deal with the large majority of people who wouldn't save the 16%, either. Throw dog food at them? Run them over in your SUV? Or just shoot them?

    How about telling people to keep working and paying their own way unless they're actually disabled?

    Let's just forget about some magical age when someone just reaches and gets to quit working and start spongeing of the taxpayers.

    Save for retirement or keep working or if you're disabled you get to be a welfare recipient getting just enough to subsist on.

  • ||

    My essential plan is that if you don't mind living a subsistence lifestyle on nominal welfare, then you don't need to save for retirement. If you mind, you should save for retirement.

    Incidentally, if you believe people are too stupid to know how to save on their own without government prodding, I would be okay with government-operated blind investment plans that you pay taxes into if you cannot prove that you are already saving the equivalent in your private tax-free retirement account.

    This is preferable to Social Security in three ways: it's your money rather than the government's; you can opt out of government control if you can demonstrate your own responsibility; and it provides for private tax-free retirement accounts without requiring an employer using a tax loophole or egregiously low IRA limits.

  • ||

    Frankly, I'm sick and tired of people calling Medicare an entitlement.

    Me too. Let's call it what it is: wealth redistribution by force. Better?

    I paid Medicare taxes for 40 years while working, and now that I'm retired, I pay a monthly premiem that s actually higher than I was paying for health insurance while working.

    No, you paid for everyone else's SS and Medicare. It's not invested, it's not locked away in an account with your name, you know, like an IRA or 401k.

    You pay more now because you are A) not in a group plan any longer and B)older and a higher risk of incurring high cost medical problems.

  • ||

    Chad|4.9.10 @ 8:57PM|#
    "43% of non-retired adults have less than $10,000 saved for retirement."

    Cite please.

  • Chad||

    l2google

    Seriously. Just take my entire post and dump it in. Why are you so damned lazy?

  • zoltan||

    The guy who wants billions stolen from hard-working people and given to those who didn't earn calling others lazy...huh.

  • Jeffersonian||

    That would include, I presume, 18 year-olds. Stupid statistic, Chony.

  • ||

    Could you find a less relevant statistic if you tried?

    Here's one that's more relevant: more than 43% of non-retired adults are further away than the median non-retired adult from retirement. Here's another relevant one: at least 43% of non-retired adults are going to have higher income in the future than in the past.

    Look at net worth by age. The 55-64 cohort has the highest median at $250,000 and the highest average at $850,000.

    I have to ask why you believe that the 43% of non-retired adults you cite should have 15% of their income taken from them and given to millionaires. Social Security and Medicare taxes are higher than income taxes for the large majority of wage earners. They are hideously inefficient and regressive mechanisms for dealing with the problem of poor retirees. And, given the different voting proclivities of your 43% and of retirees, Social Security and Medicare are frankly vicious.

    One thing your stat does do is point out the fiction of the Social Security system. Why isn't the 12% coughed up since one started working counted as retirement savings?

  • Colonel_Angus||

    What does that do to get rid of the entitlement problem?

  • Steff||

    And that would do wonderful things to the poor, too. Don't you care about the poor, Chad?

  • ||

    "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."

    How is the polling "not as strong"? Sixty six percent of the population say they want lower taxes and few services. I don't see how it could be any clearer. But then Suderman discounts that poll well, just because. It makes no sense. I guess it doesn't count becasue it goes against his Cosmotarian sensibilities to think that the population is not a bunch of ignorant boobs.

  • Mo||

    "Not as strong" means there aren't as many polls that consistently show people's opinions going in one direction. There are lots and lots of polls showing that people want low taxes and high spending, so there is strong evidence that people want low taxes and lots of goodies (big surprise). There aren't as many that show that people want fewer services for lower taxes, especially outside of the context of a once in a lifetime economic crisis.

    One poll does not a consensus make.

    http://www.usatoday.com/news/p.....poll_N.htm

  • zoltan||

    Shhhh, Mo, just let John get his cosmotarian name-calling in for the day.

  • ||

    You won't have Bart Stupak to kick around anymore:

    Rep. Bart Stupak insists that tea party activists outraged over his crucial support of health care legislation didn't run him out of office, but his decision to retire gives conservatives a rallying point as they target Democrats in the midterm elections.

    The congressman, an anti-abortion Democrat whose high-profile role in the "Obamacare" debate earned him enemies on the left and the right, said Friday that he's leaving because he's tired and has accomplished his No. 1 goal: improving health care.
  • Jeffersonian||

    Maybe he'll be out in flyover country making sure Obama's Executive Order is being enforced.

  • wingnutx||

    These guys are looking for volunteers to act like racist loons in front of cameras at Tea Party functions:

    http://crashtheteaparty.org/

  • ||

    A joint creation of the DNC & RNC

  • Jeffersonian||

    Executed by their catspaw, the SEIU

  • josey||

    Domain ID:D158773927-LROR
    Domain Name:CRASHTHETEAPARTY.ORG
    Created On:03-Apr-2010 22:52:43 UTC
    Last Updated On:06-Apr-2010 17:20:20 UTC
    Expiration Date:03-Apr-2012 22:52:43 UTC
    Sponsoring Registrar:GoDaddy.com, Inc. (R91-LROR)
    Registrant ID:CR45137659
    Registrant Name:Ben Franklin
    Registrant Street1:3 chestnut lane
    Registrant City:Philadelphia
    Registrant State/Province:Pennsylvania
    Registrant Postal Code:19115
    Registrant Country:US
    Registrant Phone:[redacted]
    Registrant Email:[redacted]

    The question would be: is the site, as presented, authentic, or is it a double-fake -- a teaparty site, created to give more plausibility to the idea that what it proposes is what is really happening? It does have a PayPal donation button...it wouldn't be too difficult for someone with more time on their hands than me to do some undercover work; I don't imagine the person running it to be the brightest bulb.

    Whatever the case, one thing is clear: the site owner is a spineless twit. I don't suppose that GoDaddy really appreciates falsified registrations very much.

  • wingnutx||

    Good question.

    Maybe it's just the best Nigerian scam ever.

  • ||

  • josey||

    Thanks for the link.

    I fully, and I mean FULLY, do not understand the logic of doing that. The verifiable existence of even the most insignificant group of impostors creates plausible deniability for any and every generic (i.e. not able to be verifiably attributed to a specific individual) instance of bad behavior on the part of any authentic tea party goer, anywhere.

    Are these dunces so blindingly strategy-challenged as not to see this?

  • Steff||

    Is it me, or do they actually look like a bunch of teenage boys, fondling themselves in Mom's basement, just from how they type? You can hear the 'hur hur hur!'

  • SIV||

    I don't think most Americans love the entitlements as much as they feel "entitled" to them. When your paycheck is docked all your working life on a promise to pay some of it back later you kinda feel it is owed to you, regardless of the shitty finances of the government.

    20% of the budget spent on "foreign aid" is a little more realistic perception if you count most US military presence overseas as foreign aid. I think most Americans do.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    We still have troops in Germany two decades after the Berlin Wall fell.

  • ed||

    And 65 years after Hitler used a Walther PPK for a lollypop.

  • Jeffersonian||

    I like that visual. Almost as much as I like the end Adolph came to in "Inglorious Basterds."

  • ||

    SIV|4.9.10 @ 9:14PM|#
    "20% of the budget spent on "foreign aid" ..."
    Nope:
    http://www.usgovernmentspendin.....pie_gs.php

  • zoltan||

    if you count most US military presence overseas as foreign aid

    Reading comprehension class is hard!

  • josey||

    True. It's a question of context. You are born into a world which exists in a particular state; whether it occurs to you that there may be fundamental deficiencies in that state, or that other states are indeed possible, is a function of happenstance, i.e. the nature of your own perception. If you are not apt to question reality, you will accept the paradigm (subconsciously though, since by definition, you will not consciously realize that you have accepted anything at all) and formulate your various positions based solely on the framework it provides.

    This is seen in many different areas; adherents of a particular religion may flatly deny the validity of an opposing religion. Their basis? That their particular religion is based on truth(s) external to the system. Had they been born into the opposing religion, however, the likelihood is that they would use exactly the same type of pseudo-logic, but in the opposite direction. In both cases, questions raised by atheists are inherently wrong, as they counter the truth held by the believer, the nature of which is, ipso facto, immutable. Reason and argumentation are rendered both inapplicable and ineffectual in the face of such assumed truth(s).

    It is similar with government worship, from the perspective of believers; it is something more cynical to those who understand and leverage their understanding for various ends, but these are not being discussed here. For the believer, calls for legally-enforced fairness, equality, justice, etc., are made on the basis of the implicit truth of those notions, which is, itself, not likely to be questioned or discussed. The idea that such concepts represent nothing more than generally desirable outcomes is not to be explored; indeed, attachment to them is so strong that even the act of questioning may commonly bring one's motives for doing so under suspicion.

    Also then, with the concept of 'rights.' Rights are held out, similarly, as inherent truths (i.e. 'we hold these truths to be self-evident'), with very little recognition that what a 'right' is, is an abstraction over, basically, a code of behavior which, when followed, is likely to result in less, rather than more, conflict between individuals in the course of their interaction with one another. That is to say, when all parties agree to accept a legitimate code of rights, their conduct becomes self-governing; where an illegitimate code means: one which contains self-contradictory 'rights.' Each 'right', in and of itself is simply a description of behavior between parties which, when conducted according to the prescribed restrictions, is likely to result in a mutually-beneficial outcome; it is not a preexisting and immutable rule, created for, or handed down to, the individual, by another entity.

    Best case scenario would be that no so-called truth be allowed to stand on its own, in the mind of any man. That all would realize the context they are given is one which is not inherent to life itself, but instead represents, simply, the sum total of human interaction in the system up to the point at which they entered it. That all that concretely exists is that which happens, and that this reality is created, in real time, by all parties involved.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    and this creates challenges for pundits, politicians, and policymakers.

    Only because we have a (by definition rotten) democracy.

    There was a news article out within the last week that said, about half of all Americans don't pay federal income taxes.

    Fine. Those people should have the value of their vote reduced to go with their free loader status. New rule:

    Free Loaders Do Not Get To Steer The Boat

    Re-weight each US citizen's votes, such that one's vote is weighted higher, in proportion to the amount of tax one actually pays in a year (to level out what happens with the deductions game).

    Those who pay the most for government, should get the biggest voice in how it's run.

  • ||

    You do realize that 2% of the people in this country pay 95% of the taxes, right? So what you're proposing is replacing representative democracy with oligarchy. No thank you -- the rich have enough systemic advantages as it is.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    I didn't say the weighting had to allow to 2% of the population to have 95% control. I agree that wouldn't be good.

    OTOH, right now we've got half the population free riding and that's clearly also no good. There's just enough of them, that they can vote themselves more and more free stuff from those of us who do pay the bills.

    Would have to give some thought to what the right weight distribution would be. But what we've got is no good.

    But I still think we'd be better off to do away with elections entirely, and appoint congressional seats along the lines of a jury duty system. Getting rid of the motivation to get re-elected should at least help.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    btw, I think "2% of the people in this country pay 95% of the taxes" is a bit exaggerated. But it is a small minority that pays the lion's share.

  • zoltan||

    What news article was this? Half of the population not paying income taxes sounds outrageous.

  • wingnutx||

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement