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The Remarkable Inability of Americans to Support Their Deficit-Cutting Aspirations

In the latest Washington Post-ABC poll, released today, contains a remarkable though not surprising finding. Americans may profess to be deeply concerned about the budget deficit. But when it comes to solutions, not a single one of the nine major proposals to cut the federal budget receives majority support.

The same disconnect jumps out from a Pew poll released last week. An impressive 93 percent agree that the federal deficit budget is a major problem, and 70 percent say it must be addressed now (the other 23 percent think it needs to be addressed when the economy gets better). Yet only two of 12 proposals to reduce the deficit received majority support.

Like St. Augustine asking for “chastity and continence, but not yet,” the American public knows that the current budget deficit of almost $14 trillion is downright sinful. But actually doing something about it, well, hold on a minute now buddy, you can’t raise my taxes or cut any of these important programs! Certainly not now!

In the Pew poll, the only two things that receive majority support are raising the Social Security contribution cap (64 percent) and freezing salaries for federal workers (59 percent). Obama’s already on top of the pay freeze.  He estimates it could save approximately $5 billion over two years, cutting the deficit to a much more manageable $13.995 trillion.

Reducing Social Security for high-income seniors wins the approval of 48 percent of respondents in the Pew poll, and 49 percent of respondents in the Post/ABC poll. Reducing defense spending gets 43 percent approval in the Pew poll and 44 percent approval in the Post/ABC poll. The most widely unpopular proposal was increasing the federal gasoline tax by 15 cents per gallon. Only 22 percent of respondents in the Pew poll and 21 percent of respondents in the Post poll approved.

Interestingly, Pew broke down the figures for Tea Party supporters, 84 percent of whom say that the federal deficit is a major problem that the country needs to address now. Yet, on seven of the 12 deficit reduction proposals, Tea Party supporters are less supportive the proposals than the general public. Again, that is LESS supportive! The only deficit reduction proposal with majority support among Tea Partiers is the aforementioned federal salary freeze (at 74 percent). And the only other to receive majority support is reducing Social Security for high-income seniors (by a narrow margin of 50-48 percent).

In a recent P-Fix post, Elbert Ventura noted that “Americans may profess to hate European-style states, but the disconnect between their hatred of taxes and love of benefits may well hasten the day of a European-style collapse.”

This is spot on. The disconnect is downright maddening. I want to shake some of these people, show them the federal ledger, and say: Here is the reality. If we want to make a dent in the deficit, we are going to have to make some choices that involve real tax increases and real cuts to benefit programs. There is no more free lunch. We can pretend that somewhere there is a $10 trillion line item labeled “waste” that politicians are conspiring to protect, or we can have an intelligent conversation about this. If we stay in a fantasy world, the inevitable reckoning is going to be a lot more painful.

Now, if only there were some political leader out there with the courage to say something like that. Because this is one of those issues where the public is simply not going to come around on its own. Sure, perhaps better economic times would make some respondents slightly more willing to see higher taxes or reduced benefits. But real sacrifice, real hard decisions? That’s going to take political leadership. Any takers?

Photo credit: mchmlbrk


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