Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 8, 2010

CUT SPENDING (BUT DON'T REALLY).... For years, a variety of polls from a variety of outlets during a variety of conditions all show the same thing: Americans want to see the government cut public spending -- in the abstract. Asked for specifics, the same Americans actually like public spending and don't want to see cuts.

Kevin Drum flags the latest example.

Ah, the American public. God love 'em. The Economist asked if they'd rather tackle the federal deficit by cutting spending or raising taxes, and the runaway winner was cutting spending, by a margin of 62% to 5%. So what are we willing to cut? Answer: pretty much nothing.

As you can see, there wasn't one single area that even a third of the country wanted to cut back on. Except -- hold on there! Down in the middle of the table. There is one area that everyone's willing to trim: foreign aid. Good 'ol foreign aid. A category that, as Roger McShane dryly points out, "makes up less than 1% of America's total spending."

Beyond that, there were only four areas that even a quarter of the population was willing to cut: mass transit, agriculture, housing, and the environment. At a rough guess, these areas account for about 3% of the federal budget. You could slash their budgets by a third and still barely make a dent in federal spending.

This phenomenon is incredibly common. GW's John Sides published a piece a couple of months ago, noting that even self-identified conservatives want to cut spending ... except for all of the things the government actually spends money on. They do like the idea of spending cuts, but balk at the particulars.

Around the same time, Pew asked Americans if they wanted to see more spending, less spending, or no change on various parts of the budget. The only area that cracked the 20% threshold was "foreign aid." In literally every other area of the budget, people wanted to see more spending, not less.

In February, when President Obama's proposed budget included spending cuts and reduced industry subsidies, Republican lawmakers complained bitterly, saying the cuts might adversely affect their states and districts.

It's something voters should try to keep in mind during the midterms. For every candidate who boasts about his/her desire to cut spending, there should be a straightforward follow-up: where? If they can't answer the question, they probably don't mean what they're saying.

Steve Benen 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (37)

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I'd suspect that, once you detail what the aid is for foreign aid (e.g., aid to Israel disaster relief, etc.), even THAT would drop to a minority. "Foreign aid" is one of those easy targets, like "waste and fraud," that falls apart once you get below skin-deep.

Posted by: artsmith on April 8, 2010 at 10:08 AM | PERMALINK

This is exactly why the Republicans, whenever they gain power, utterly fail to rein in government spending. It's politically unpopular, and they know it. And spending money, on the other hand, is lots of fun!

The truth is, there are no conservatives anymore -- no one who really believes in limited government. (Well, no one besides Ron Paul and some of the tea partiers.) The only difference between left and right is how to spend all the money, not whether we should spend it at all.

Posted by: jvwalt on April 8, 2010 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

Ask Americans if they are willing to cut aid to Israel.

Posted by: No Likudnik on April 8, 2010 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

This reminds me of a survey that my local (state) senator and rep sent out in January at the beginning of the legislative session. They had a list of 10 or so items and asked people which ones should have spending cut in order to balance the budget (and in priority order). I decided to treat it as a real question, did a little research, searched my soul a little, and sent the survey back with some spending cuts that I really wasn't happy with, but that might make a material difference. They both actually called me to find out if I was serious, because just about everybody else said "none of the above". Bread and circuses. . .

Posted by: Michigoose on April 8, 2010 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

I recall one poll or focus group asked those who wanted to reduce foreign aid what the appropriate percentage of the federal budget it should be. The answer was 15 percent, far above the actual.

As far as Republican grandstanding on the federal deficit, GOP hacks need to realize that clicking their heels and saying "Reagan, Reagan, Reagan" is NOT a strategy for lowering deficits.

Posted by: KevinMc on April 8, 2010 at 10:15 AM | PERMALINK

We're a doomed empire. I give us 30 years....less if the Grand Opulence Party gets control of Washington again.

Posted by: oh my on April 8, 2010 at 10:16 AM | PERMALINK

If some Deficit Hawk, or whatever douchey name they want to go by, balks at ANY military spending cuts, then you know they are not serious and you should just stop listening to them. It's that simple.

Posted by: Breezeblock on April 8, 2010 at 10:20 AM | PERMALINK

Hey, America is a young country. Around 12, I reckon.

Posted by: hells littlest angel on April 8, 2010 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK



Didn't we have this conversation in 2008?

Posted by: Justin on April 8, 2010 at 10:23 AM | PERMALINK

Hmmm, I bet if bank bailouts were on the list of things to cut, people might agree on that. Those billions might be a drop in the bucket, but it's a drop I still resent.

Posted by: Barbara on April 8, 2010 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

These results aren't surprising. Similar surveys have shown this pattern for years. Part of the reason 'foreign aid' and those other categories ARE such a small percentage is that they've already been cut about as much as possible.

The study I'd like to see is the one where people are asked to guess how our top marginal tax rate compares to what it was in the 1950s. I'm sure most would mistakenly guess that we pay taxes at rates far higher than in the 50s.

Posted by: biggerbox on April 8, 2010 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

Has anyone ever done a survey like this where the list of possible areas to cut spending in actually specifies the percentage of the federal budget that is in that area? Or even dollar figures?

Posted by: fuyura on April 8, 2010 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Barbara for you it would seem facts have no meaning. The federal govt is going to or already has realized a 10 or 12 billion dollar profit this year on tarp bank bailouts.

Posted by: Gandalf` on April 8, 2010 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

I think this ties into the news about the hold that Sen. Coburn has on unemployment benefits. He claims he wants to see the extension offset by spending cuts. The Dems should force him to identify the cuts he wants to make. Of course, when he can't identify any cuts, he still won't release his hold.

Posted by: Carlos on April 8, 2010 at 10:38 AM | PERMALINK

Like this sentence, the fact that what the majority of the minority wants to cut amounts to only 1% of spending, and what the minority of the minority wants to cut amounts to only 3% of spending is far too nuanced, intellectual, and socialist for Americans who don't understand that 51% is a majority.

Posted by: Winkandanod on April 8, 2010 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

This is a problem governments have had since as long as there have been governments. The people who don't have the responsibility for making ends meet, be they foolish kings, priests, aristocrats, citizens, or peasants, always complain about taxes and want more spending.

The same citizens who answer these questions foolishly in the abstract get the job done when they are managing their own finances, running school boards, city councils, charities, clubs, churches, etc. Put the question to them so they know they have to make actual decisions and they will give you serious answers.

Posted by: Midland on April 8, 2010 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

Let's face it: most Americans are all for cutting spending, as long as it only affects "those people," and not their own school districts, city services, etc.

Posted by: electrolite on April 8, 2010 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

Gandalf, your argument is a logical fallacy known as appealing to consequences. Just because the govt may realize a profit, does not automatically make the bailout a good thing.

Posted by: Carlos on April 8, 2010 at 10:45 AM | PERMALINK

Ah, the American public. God love 'em.


Barbara for you it would seem facts have no meaning. The federal govt is going to or already has realized a 10 or 12 billion dollar profit this year on tarp bank bailouts.

Posted by: koreyel on April 8, 2010 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

I look forward to Megan McArdle's article telling us that this means not cutting spending is ignoring the will of the People, and failing to cut anything is therefore nothing short of tyranny...

Posted by: SpaceSquid on April 8, 2010 at 10:52 AM | PERMALINK

David Stockman, Reagan's first head of OMB, tells a story in his book about running this type of exercise with Reagan (pg. 386 of my edition). "The quiz divided the entire budget up into about fifty spending components and gave him three spending cut choices on each, ranging from a nick to a heavy whack. Next to each choice was a description of what the impact of the cut would be (how many people would be thrown out into the snow), and of its political prospects (e.g., "previously defeated 27-2 in committee")."
Reagan ran this exercise in November 1982 and spent days on this. In the end, Reagan "flunked the exam" with "the five-year budget deficit remained at a staggering $800 billion".

Posted by: VOR on April 8, 2010 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

Why isn't it obvious that by withdrawing from protracted military engagements we can:

-Support the Troops
-Drastically cut spending
-End an unpopular war

Am I missing something?

Posted by: McKee on April 8, 2010 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

Human stupidity is chronic and incurable. I served for several years on a condo management board, and every time we had to raise condo fees or impose a special assessment, it was the same story: people would show up at meetings, scream abuse, call us crooks, and always, always say "The services here aren't worth what we're paying now! You should improve services and cut fees!" Trying to explain the illogic of this is absolutely hopeless. Most of my fellow board members ended up leaving the complex; last we heard, the town-house units were selling, if they could sell at all, for 30K, but most would-be buyers couldn't give 'em away to their best friends. And the decline in values of units had started long before the housing bubble collapsed. Well, they got what they were willing to pay for, and I hope they like it.

Posted by: T-Rex on April 8, 2010 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

I remember back during the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan claimed he could cut $90 billion from the Federal Budget. Of course, as he was unable to specify exactly WHERE he'd make those cuts and as "Six Million Dollar Man" (A partial cyborg, one of his arms and his legs were made of metal and super-powered) was a popular series at the time, Reagan was dubbed the "$90 Billion Man."

Posted by: Rich2506 on April 8, 2010 at 11:06 AM | PERMALINK

Isn't this what Ben Franklin and other founders feared: that once the people figured out they could raid the treasury, the republic was doomed.

Posted by: jim Pharo on April 8, 2010 at 11:10 AM | PERMALINK

Reminds me of a quote, attributed to some random politician of an age long gone by. To the question, "Given a ten-percent reduction in income, where would you make your cuts?", he is said to have replied, "Across my throat."

Posted by: Mark on April 8, 2010 at 11:23 AM | PERMALINK

Cut The Pentagon Budget. Do we really need to kill ever more civilians in Afhganistan and Iraq and other hot spots?
Do we really need 800 bases artound the world?

America is such a war mongering country. 709 billion cut down to 200 billion would improve the deficit greatlu=y. single payer could win and insurance , paharma companies would be cost adjusted. By the Way Google will not allow Canadian pharmacies be located on their ISP. Another Big brother , Orwellian tactic from corporations.

Posted by: mljohnstonn on April 8, 2010 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

This leads back to the age-old question: "Guns or Butter?" 54% of all federal dollars goes for Defense. The remaining 46% goes for EVERYTHING else. The answer where the cuts should occur is obvious, yet it is the one area that is sacrosanct.

Posted by: winddancer on April 8, 2010 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not all that keen on these surveys, honestly, because people are likely to find the _category_ worthwhile but could easily question line items within those categories.

I.e., if you asked your neighbor whether we should cut spending on the police force, he would probably say no, but if the police decided to spend a bunch of money on sending the guy who dresses up as McGruff to Julliard, he might not like that. People support "the troops" but not, going back a ways, thousand-dollar toilet seats.

I think the fairer point is that the Government Spending that anyone is going to find straightforwardly objectionable is minimal. Which is why the whole "pork" crusade is so overblown.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on April 8, 2010 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

The same thing is happening in California. Over at Capital Notes, reporter John Myers wrote about a Field Poll of Californians. The only two things that a majority of those polled agreed should be cut were prisons and parks. But if you COMPLETELY cut those two areas, you'd only save about $9 billion over one year, putting a medium sized dent in the $20 billion deficit. But you'd also release every single prisoner and have no state parks. So, where, voters, will you find the other $11 billion to cut?

Posted by: meander on April 8, 2010 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Eliminate one of the legs of the nuclear defense triad. Bombers, missiles or subs. Do we need all three these days? I say ditch the bombers; they would probably be the easiest to ramp up if a cold war defense stance reemerges. Savings? Sizable and discernible.

Posted by: Crumpet Blisters on April 8, 2010 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

Obama dare not touch the defense budget, certainly not in an election year, for fear of handing the Republicans an excuse to fire up the "Democrats are gutting the country's defenses during a war" refrain. Makes no difference at all if every bit of that military power is actually needed - only perceptions matter.

Posted by: Mark on April 8, 2010 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Right up there with pork on the list of what to cut would be "waste" and "fraud." I wonder how much it would cost to identify it and set up processes and procedures to reduce it? Think it'd end up saving much in the end?

Posted by: 57Kevin on April 8, 2010 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

This is also why conservative blowhards work so hard to convince the wingnuts that foreign aid is 40% of the budget, etc.

Posted by: Redshift on April 8, 2010 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

I've seen other surveys, which I'm afraid I can't link to, showing that the people who want to cut foreign aid believe it is a much greater percentage of the budget than it in fact is, and, when asked what percentage of the budget should go to foreign aid, give a number roughly twice as high as the current percentage.

Posted by: CJColucci on April 8, 2010 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

Well, it's funny you should mention it; but while we're on the subject of defense, a new study conducted by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. recently examined how efficiently 33 nations that account for 90 percent of worldwide defense expenditures perform a range of functions. The three key areas were personnel, maintenance and weapons acquisition.

Are you curious to know where the U.S. ranked? Good, I'll tell you. 33. Out of 33. Russia ranked third.

The story, by John T. Bennett, appeared in the print edition of Defense News.

Some will argue, perhaps with justification, that waste and graft are consequences of living in a prosperous society. But when you come in dead last in an efficiency study, it should raise flags that there is a level of waste which cannot be accounted for simply by being too rich to fail.

Posted by: Mark on April 8, 2010 at 5:34 PM | PERMALINK

And do we really need gigantic billion dollar emba$$ie$ in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan that has a secret tunnel running to Kharzi's palace? Do we really need to keep troops and bases in Germany, Djubuti, South Korea, Okinawa, etc.? Let Europeans defend themselves. Let the Koreans fight it out amongst themselves. We don't need to spy on Somalia from Djubuti. Does Congress reallllllllly need free medical care in the Capitol? Does Congress realllllly need their own retirement system----why not put them on Social Security with the rest of us?

Posted by: Jay on February 15, 2011 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK
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