Cut the Debt By Cutting Government

The first Reason-Rupe Poll shows a country more radical than its politicians.


As Congress grappled over the federal government's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling this spring, the first-ever quarterly Reason-Rupe Poll found that 69 percent of Americans consider it "very important" to reduce the national debt. Another 17 percent deemed it "important," while 10 percent said "moderately important." A full 84 percent of Americans want a reduction in government spending to be part of the solution to the debt crisis; 42 percent want an increase in taxes to be part of the solution.

This is the first in a series of Reason-Rupe public opinion surveys dedicated to exploring what Americans think about public policy. The project, which you can follow and parse in greater detail at reason.com/poll, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation. This first report surveyed a random, national sample of 1,200 adults by telephone (859 on landlines, 341 on cell phones) from March 24 to April 9, 2011. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. The poll was conducted for the Reason Foundation by NSON Opinion Strategy.

Taxes and Spending

Concern about the debt (see Figure 1) is consistent in all groups, regardless of race, party identification, age, income, education, gender, religious activity, or employment status. Significant differences between political groups do emerge on the question of whether reducing the debt is "very important": Eighty-five percent of Tea Party supporters and 80 percent of non–Tea Party Republicans think so, compared to 60 percent of independents and 59 percent of Democrats.

Media coverage of the public's worries about deficit spending has focused mainly on the lack of consensus on how to deal with the national debt. Analysts and commentators often observe that survey respondents call for spending cuts in the abstract even while supporting current levels of spending on Medicare, Social Security, and other big-ticket items. Yet it is not surprising that when survey questions fail to explore tradeoffs, the answers reflect a lack of consistency or feasibility. Typically, pollsters do not follow up with the sort of inquiries that would clarify the apparent confusion. The Reason-Rupe poll, by engaging in those follow-ups, revealed a country very reluctant to raise taxes. 

When presented with a series of tradeoffs between reducing spending and raising taxes (see Figure 2), the most popular policy prescription by far was spending cuts: Forty-five percent of people say Congress should bring down the debt by reducing spending without raising taxes. Another 16 percent favor reducing the debt primarily through spending cuts but are open to some tax increases; 14 percent prefer an equal emphasis on spending cuts and tax increases; 8 percent want to reduce the debt primarily through higher taxes with some spending cuts; and just 4 percent say current spending levels should be maintained while taxes should be raised. Only 1 percent of Americans say we should not do anything about the debt. 

The Reason-Rupe poll included several open-ended questions that allowed respondents to voice concerns and share their own ideas. When asked to name the biggest problem facing America today, 30 percent said the economy, 23 percent emphasized jobs and unemployment, and 10 percent cited government spending, debts, and deficits.

When given the opportunity to name any government program they'd like to spend less money on, 22 percent of Americans suggested cutting military spending. Welfare (10 percent) and foreign aid (10 percent) were the other most frequently suggested cuts. Entitlements, which take up a huge and growing share of federal spending, came in at just 5 percent. (Another 5 percent said "everything.") When asked to suggest what the government should spend more money on, 39 percent said education, 16 percent focused on helping the poor and needy, and 13 percent singled out health care.

On the taxation side, 56 percent of Americans support replacing the current complicated tax system with a flat tax. Forty-four percent also favor, while 36 percent oppose, giving up the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks if it results in a simpler system with lower overall tax rates. One tax change that respondents are against is a national sales tax; just 33 percent of Americans support substituting it for the federal income tax. When asked about the amount of federal, state, local, and property taxes they pay, 51 percent of Americans say they pay too much in taxes, 41 percent believe they pay about the right amount, and 4 percent think they pay too little.

Meanwhile, the poll numbers make it clear that taxpayers do not trust the federal government to live within its means (see Figure 3). A whopping 74 percent of Americans support a spending cap that would prohibit the government from spending more money than it takes in during any fiscal year. Only 19 percent oppose a government spending cap. 

Not only do Americans distrust their government; they actively dislike it. Asked to rate Congress' job performance, 61 percent of respondents said they disapprove, compared to just 17 percent who approve and 18 percent who say neither. When asked if they would be better off, worse off, or no different if Congress were in session only every other year, 42 percent said there would be no difference and 16 percent said they'd be better off; 36 percent thought they would be worse off. By a huge margin—61 percent to 25 percent—Americans think the country is headed in the "wrong," not "right," direction.

Politics and Philosophy

It's not just politicians that voters dislike; it's the two major parties that produce them. Asked which political party they trust to govern more responsibly, the leading answer was "neither," at 35 percent, followed by Democrats at 31 percent and Republicans at 23 percent. Asked which political party they most closely identified with, 38 percent said Democratic, 31 percent said Republican, and 24 percent said "independent" or "no party."

Meanwhile, a robust 60 percent of Americans say they would consider voting for an independent or third-party presidential candidate in the 2012 election, and 20 percent said they "might" consider doing so, compared to just 17 percent who said they would not. This willingness cuts across party lines: Eighty-nine percent of independents, 86 percent of Republicans, and 71 percent of Democrats said they would or might consider candidates outside of the two major political parties. 

To be clear, considering and voting are two very different things. The American electoral system has built-in barriers to independent or third-party challengers. Nevertheless, these numbers tell us something about the current political climate. They mean individuals are willing to at least consider candidates who do not necessarily fit within the cookie-cutter molds of traditional Democrats and Republicans.

What about libertarians? The survey asked about "overall political philosophy" and found that "libertarian" ranked fifth out of five. The breakdown was "conservative" (34 percent), "moderate" (28), "liberal" (15), don't know/no response (11), "progressive" (7), then "libertarian" (5).

Some libertarian causes proved more popular than that, however. Forty-one percent of the country supports legalizing small quantities of marijuana for personal use, while 44 percent opposes legalization; 69 percent of Americans say each state should be allowed to regulate medical marijuana use within its borders. Given the ongoing federal raids on cannabis dispensaries in states where medical marijuana already has been legalized, plus pressure by the U.S. Department of Justice on states that are considering licensing and regulating dispensaries, this support for drug policy federalism could play an interesting role in 2012 politics.

The Reason-Rupe Poll is designed to track American public opinion in ways that flush out concerns not generally represented by the two major political parties, while creating reliable data sets for tracking opinion evolution over time. The full poll numbers cover views on government involvement in health care, education, energy, financial services, food and beverages, telecommunications, drugs, transportation, culture, and more. The Reason-Rupe poll will also ask questions in ways that present respondents with the same trade-offs faced by policy makers.

At a time when a Republican House of Representatives can't succeed in cutting the debt, let alone the size of government, clear majorities of Americans across the political spectrum are treating the issue with considerable urgency. As the 2012 election campaign heats up, the wide gap between elected officials and their bosses, which we will continue to measure, could have important consequences.  

For more information about the Reason-Rupe Polling Project, please contact Emily Ekins (emily.ekins@reason.org), polling director at the Reason Foundation.

NEXT: The Sound of One Hand Clapping

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  1. A full 84 percent of Americans want a reduction in government spending to be part of the solution to the debt crisis

    Until the reduction affects them, then they're outraged.

    If these people answered honestly and vote, they have only themselves to blame.

    People suck.

    1. Get your government hands of my Medicare!

  2. "Should the debt ceiling be raised?" is a tricky question

    1. So if my credit cards are maxed, I should raise my "debt ceiling" and the additional spending will increase my productivity and lead to more revenue to pay my debt? Brilliant!

      1. Only if you invest in Debtors Anonymous rehab program.

      2. It will probably just get you laid

      3. If you don't get your credit limit raised, you won't be able to make minumum payments on your credit cards, and you'll have to declare bankruptcy. That yould be the only option.

  3. I would do what Charles Rangel says.

    1. Naa, it's obvious that we should do what the Greeks do.

      1. Platonic love?

        1. Invade Sicily?

      2. Live on past glory?

  4. "41 percent believe they pay about the right amount [in taxes], and 4 percent think they pay too little."

    Well, since 47% of households pay NO federal income tax?I guess it's pretty easy for 41% to believe they pay just about the right amount.

    1. Let's see...should we choose to cut government programs or just tax the top 25%? What say you bottom 75%?

      As someone here wrote a few weeks ago (my new favorite analogy), "Two wolves and a sheep voting on dinner."

      1. You have it wrong: Two wolves and a sheep vote for dinner but one of the wolves, and the sheep conspire to eat the other wolf. It gives the sheep time, and a better chance of survival. The wolf gets the whole dinner.

        1. Clever, but inaccurate. The sheep would be of little help killing the wolf, and the wolf would face more resistance from the other wolf than it would from the sheep. Many Americans have become massively risk averse - most would take the easy path even if the expected return was far less. They would happily take half of a sheep with no risk of getting even a scratch on their ever-expanding backsides rather than assume the risk of taking on the wolf in the hopes of getting the wolf and eventually the sheep too.

    2. 4 percent think they pay too little."

      Gifts to the United States
      U.S. Department of the Treasury
      Credit Accounting Branch
      3700 East-West Highway, Room 622D
      Hyattsville, MD 20782

  5. That's right; it was platonic

  6. 69 percent of Americans consider it "very important" to reduce the national debt

    Thus proving 69% of Americans are racist.

    1. But only 14% of Americans are Black so your figure must be off.

      1. Any disagreement with the president can only be explained by racism, so that 69% must be racist.

    2. Fucking tea-baggers

      1. You're missing the other half of the blame, Thom.

  7. This just means that the majority of Americans don't know what's good for them.

    They don't understand that the economy benefits when the government borrows money and makes that money no longer available to be borrowed by businesses that produce value and employ people.

    They don't understand that the economy benefits when government spending crowds out private investment.

    They don't understand that an increased debt burden on future generations makes people stronger.

    The majority of Americans are stupid.

    1. This (your implication via sarcasm) is why I was disgusted that the second pie chart did not include an answer along the lines of 'reduce gov't spending faster than we reduce taxes'.

      The fact that 'leave taxes alone' was the most fiscally conservative option implies that taxes are somehow good for the economy at current levels.

  8. Why won't anyone take us seriously?

    1. Most people suffer from apathy, economic ignorance, or a desire for state-driven security. I say let the whole damn thing come crashing down. We deserve nothing less.

      1. This is required before anything meaningful is accomplished.

    2. I don't know about that, cupcake. I don't identify as a libertarian per se, and most people around here are on the same political frequency that I am (basicoually, at least). I also don't crouch in fear of humiliation and attention when I leave my front door, which, if your fuckhead remark is any indication, is the sort of thing you do on a regular basis.

      1. was a lecture from a Real man libertarian? ? ?

      2. RPA: Dude, I think he was making a little joke...

        1. If that's true, I sincerely apologize, but in the world of Tonys and Shrikes, you never know.

          1. I think it was just random snarkage, nothing to get exercised about.

  9. Why cut spending when you can blame the "rich"

    1. Why cut taxes when you can blame the poor?

  10. In conclusion, average Americans and Reason-Rupe pollsters shouldn't vote.

  11. A good example over on the PJ Tatler about why we are doomed.

    The good Republican-flavored conservatives over there are pitching a fit that NASA's budget is about to get whacked all the way back to 2008 levels.

    Exactly, IOW, what they have been saying they wanted across the board for years now. But it happens to an agency they like, and allofasudden its terrible policy, the end of America, blah blah blah.

    Both the Dems and the Reps know that whoever actually pushes specific cuts across the finish line will be punished by the idiot American public. That's why they're playing chicken in the debt ceiling negotiations, why the Dems won't pass any budget, why the President won't descend from airy platitudes, why the Reps haven't started moving a bill in the House to raise the ceiling and make cuts.

    We will hit the wall. The only question is when, and how fast we are going.

    1. The article about NASA's budget was highlighting the political choice of cutting exploration projects vs. climate science projects, not really the cuts in general. And most of the comments thoughtfully supported across the board cuts to government programs, including NASA.

      I agree with you about Dem and Rep strategy with regard to the idiot American public though.

  12. My pre-coffee brain read that as "Reason-Rube" poll.

  13. So 42 percent want a tax increase? Sorry, majority rules. (Democracy rocks when you're the majority!)

  14. The real question is why has federal spending doubled in the past ten years? Was government too small in 2001?

    1. Not the whole story, but being in two or more wars the whole time don't help.

      1. (just shy of 3 Trillion in extra spending since 2001, iirc)

    2. Government is ALWAYS too small until it is all encompassing and regulates every single part of your life.

      The sooner you understand this, the sooner you understand that it will continue to grow no matter how big it already seems to be.

    3. They finally got their ironclad excuse to fight constant wars and watch us all the time...and they rolled with it.

      1. Has Obama gotten us out of the constant war and watching us game, Thom?

  15. Would it be worthwhile to construct a few scenarios which make substantial cuts, and ask poll-takers to rank the scenarios? Example scenario: "take the 40% deficit as a starting point, and cut every federal program, without exception, by 40%, which would roughly match spending to income."

    I'd also be curious to ask a random sample "Are you aware that, in the early '20s, federal spending was cut by 50% in two years, which helped snap America out of a severe depression?"

    1. Powell (2009) and Woods (2009) suggest that the Harding administration's decision to cut income taxes was instrumental to the recovery which began in 1921 and continued in earnest the following year. This is a misleading account of the Harding administration's tax policy. The Harding administration did cut tax rates for higher income families in 1922 (the highest bracket's rates were reduced from 73% to 58%) and implemented an across the board rate reduction in 1923 (from 58% to 43.5% for the highest bracket and from 4% to 3% for the lowest bracket). However, these rate cuts were accompanied by a considerable expansion of the income taxable at any given rate (Internal Revenue Service 2010). For example, while the top bracket's rate was reduced by 15% points from 1921 to 1922 in Harding's Revenue Act of 1921, the income taxable at that rate was expanded from all income over $1,000,000 to all income over $200,000. Therefore, while the tax rates were lowered, the amount of income that these tax rates were assessed against was considerably increased by the Harding administration. The net effect was that from 1921 to 1922, the period of the initial Harding tax "cut," the percent of individual income collected as revenue through the income tax actually increased from 3.67% to 3.95% (Internal Revenue Service 2010). While this expansion of the tax burden under Harding is not particularly large, it belies claims by Powell (2009) about a tax cut during the economic recovery. After 1922, further rate cuts assessed on the same income brackets did result in a decline in the tax burden from 1922 to 1923. The early Harding administration saw increasing income tax burdens for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being the restored economic growth, which pushed more families into higher tax brackets. However, the statutory expansion of these tax brackets in Harding's Revenue Act of 1921 represented a deliberate, though modest, tax increase in the interest of maintaining a balanced federal budget.

      While the brief decline in the tax burden that occurred in 1923 came too late to be considered as a factor in the recovery from the 1920?1921 downturn, the sea-change in government borrowing under the Wilson administration came far too early to be considered an important factor in the recovery. The persistence of the Wilson administration's borrowing well past the end of the war was noted earlier. However, these deficits were effectively eliminated by November, 1919, when the 3-month moving average of the federal budget surplus became and remained positive (indicating a federal surplus).12 Industrial production first declined from its peak in March of 1920, 5 months after the Wilson administration balanced the federal budget. Balancing the budget preceded the recovery in industrial production by 22 months, and the recovery in prices by 30 months, rendering the claim that the end to federal borrowing ushered in a recovery completely untenable. Powell (2009) and Woods (2009) propose a strange account of the causes of recovery, indeed: they credit the reduction in federal spending and borrowing with orchestrating a recovery from a depression which itself began after the purported recovery efforts went into effect.

  16. Politicians are very rarely radical. Who but a politician would say, "I think I think..."?
    By that he or she means, "I think as compatibly as I can to the consensus of my constituents."
    In other words, politicians are people who choose a career of not thinking for themselves. The only thing they know is when the boat starts to rock.

  17. The conflation of the debt and the deficit detracts from the value of the survey. How can any intelligent person think that our level of debt is "very important" if we are able to pay the interest expense? OTOH that we are spending money much quicker than we bring it in is alarming. Deficits are somewhat sometimes important, while debt almost never matters. Why did reason ask about *debt*?

  18. I wouldn't care if the whole thing falls apart. From the ashes of the downed federal government a new one can be formed.

    Maybe one that realizes that 1. You cannot spend money you don't have and 2. It is not the government's job to save people from the consequences of their actions.

  19. Our debt crisis is over!


    Just tax one hundred million people like this poor guy, and... uh... we'll have enough money to run the government for... uh... fifteen or twenty minutes!

  20. Will Reason ever do a Rue Paul any time soon?

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  22. As I understand it, raising the debt ceiling is necessary to pay for outlays made in the *previous* congressional session. In the name of fiscal responsibility, shouldn't we raise the debt ceiling to provide funds for programs we paid for? Is this not just a symptom of overspending? I would suggest that we should fight to limit spending, but once the money is spent, we have an obligation to pay it. If I am wrong about this or misunderstanding the fundamentals of the debt ceiling, I would appreciate a lesson.

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