What They Don’t Know

The press has work to do on the deficit debate

With all the buzz about cutting the deficit, the press should be all over the job of explaining how much gets spent on what, so the reading public understands the choices at hand.

It sure doesn’t look like that’s the case.

Bruce Bartlett points to a new Harris poll on public attitudes toward taxes, spending and deficits:

The principal lesson of the US responses appears to be that support for spending cuts and government downsizing is broad and deep. But at the same time, there is strong support for soaking the rich through the tax system. Also, Americans continue to have unrealistic expectations about how easy it will be to balance the budget without cuts in programs that affect them.

Unrealistic expectations. That’s putting it mildly.

Bartlett ticks his way through several of the questions, but this one best illustrates how little is understood about the federal budget:

Question 5: “Which of the following policy areas do you think should bear the biggest part of the spending cuts burden?”

US response: foreign aid, 72 percent; national defense, 31 percent; unemployment benefits, 22 percent; health care, 18 percent; education, 11 percent; police protection, 7 percent; and 26 percent chose other.

Trouble is, the area that the public thinks should bear the brunt of the cuts—the only choice to garner support from more than one-third of respondents—isn’t going to get us too far.

As Kevin Drum put it:

Aid to developing countries! Which currently accounts for something south of 1% of the entire federal budget. Aside from that, there was no appetite for cutting anything. Even defense spending, bloated by two unpopular wars, was favored for the chopping block by fewer than a third of respondents. “Healthcare” got only 18%, and since my guess is that this was mostly people who want to cut spending on healthcare for poor people, this means that Medicare cuts are favored by virtually no one. And Harris didn’t even bother to ask about Social Security.

Bottom line: Americans say they want to cut spending, but they pretty plainly don’t want to cut any actual spending. Just fantasy spending. Sort of like being in a rotisserie baseball league.

I like the rotisserie baseball comparison. Ezra Klein found another good way to illustrate the mismatch between what’s actually spent and what areas the public wants to cut:

Does not compute.

Matt Yglesias offers another look at how the budget pie is divided up, but the conclusion is the same—the public just doesn’t know this stuff.

Unfortunately, it’s been this way for a while, especially when it comes to overestimating the amount of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid, as this 2001 poll shows.

The Harris poll that got this ball rolling was cosponsored by the FT, which had an interesting story that focused on the European findings:

The poll’s results point to a fiscal conservatism among the European public that contrasts with the eagerness with which most governments ran up high deficits to protect jobs and living standards as the crisis unfolded.

Moreover, the results suggest that the austerity measures now being introduced across Europe need not be politically fatal for governments as long as they give convincing explanations for their actions. However, the full impact of the austerity measures has yet to be felt in most countries.

The poll showed European poll respondents were generally more eager than their U.S. counterparts to cut defense spending, but they were also interested in cutting aid to developing countries.

None of these choices alone will be enough to tackle the deficit. And none of them will be easy. But as the debate proceeds, the press needs to do a better job explaining what’s at stake, and how the math works.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.