Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hey, Pollsters: What's "Waste"?

I recommend to everyone an excellent Mark Blumenthal summary of the polling on government spending. The results are familiar, but still worth re-reading: Americans generally want to cut government spending, but do not want to cut spending on specific programs; indeed, most people want to spend more on most programs.

Blumenthal brings in Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who tries to square the circle by noting that most people also believe that large portions of federal spending are simply wasted. Now, that doesn't quite work, at least not entirely; unless people actually believe there's an account marked "Waste" they still support increases in specific programs even though (presumably) they believe that those programs waste money. In other words, I don't think you can really interpret the poll findings without attributing quite a bit of inconsistency to respondents.

Still, "waste" is an interesting topic. Indeed: Bobby Jindal's column today about sequestration was based, more than anything, on incredulity that Barack Obama couldn't find enough waste to cut that sequestration could be implemented "without jeopardizing critical services." Granted, he has no actual suggestions about waste; his only specific suggestion for replacing sequestration is to delay ACA implementation of exchanges and Medicaid expansion. Presumably, that's not "waste" -- whether or not one supports Medicaid for people just over the poverty line and subsidized health care insurance for those making more than that, it's a fairly efficient expenditure in terms of buying what the government intends.

Of course, the question here is what counts as waste. And here's where we could use some help. As far as I know, we have questions about waste, or waste-fraud-abuse, but no good questions about what they means to voters. To me, "waste" would mean, for example, that it takes six government workers to do something that one private sector worker would do. Or: waste would be a government agency buying, say, lots of extra computers which then sit in boxes because they weren't actually needed. Or what Al Gore used to talk about: buying office supplies for ten times what they would cost at Staples because of bureaucratically-mandated procedures. On the other hand, money spent on some government program I don't like -- say, building a wall on the Mexican border -- wouldn't count to me as "waste" in this context, as long as it was done efficiently. But I certainly could imagine someone thinking that such money (or enforcement of drug laws if you think those drugs should be legal, or the Iraq War if you think it was a mistake, or I suppose Social Security if you are against that program) is "government waste." Not only that, but anyone who thinks of it that way is certainly correct that there's plenty of that kind of waste -- but your waste, then, might be my vital program.

That is, there's no "correct" answer about how to interpret all of this. What we need, then, is to learn more about what polling respondents (and, for that matter, politicians) mean when they say that there's tons of government waste. Hey, pollsters! How about some questions to help us understand it. And, hey, reporters! How about pressing politicians when they claim there's lots of waste.

9 comments:

  1. Hey, political scientists! How about designing questions and delving into something that we tend to be scolds on, but don't have a full understanding of.

    (There's publications in it for you! Probably in POQ)

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  2. I suspect "waste" means all of those things to most voters who believe waste is a big problem -- lots of government workers sitting around not doing much, purchasing $1000 toilet seats, issuing grants to measure the flow rate of ketchup, etc.

    Now, certainly, all those things actually do happen. But the other factor is *how much* people think it's happening. There are plenty of poll results showing that people who think we spend too much on foreign aid, for example, believe the actual number is some substantial, double-digit percent of the federal budget. It would be unsurprising to find that people think some large percentage of federal employees are unnecessary, for example. And then perhaps to break that down further - e.g., what percentage of National Park Rangers they think are unnecessary, etc. And absolutely, it would be great to press politicians for those sorts of details.

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  3. Wow, I just lost a long comment.
    Maybe it's better I shorten it. Politically, "waste" is subjective. There are those who might consider government employees of certain races to be waste. There is also the automatic connection of "government" and "waste." Which could be why people don't see as upset by the fantastic bureaucracy involving in private insurance health care as by government bureaucracy.

    Similarly, "fraud and abuse." I recall seeing a TV news expose of Medicare abuse, calling it government abuse when the report itself showed that it was a private company cheating Medicare. Government was the victim.

    A common political ploy is deeming anything without an immediate payoff "waste." Which is why opportunists go after research projects, as well as environment, energy efficiency, even education. Somehow--and this beggars my imagination--this seems now to include infrastructure.

    In evidence-based terms, deciding what's "waste" may require more thorough analysis. For instance, six gov employees doing the work that one private sector employee could do is not ipso facto waste--it depends on other costs. Those six may turn out to be a good deal.

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  4. I think that JamesInCA is basically right. In my many conversations with low information conservatives and liberals, there is a vague belief that there are lots of useless programs that the government is funding. "Foreign Aid" is a good example of this. This is why people say they don't want to cut any actual programs; they think there are other programs the government is funding--things like dog swimming lessons. (Or deer crossing signs, because, you know, deer can't read.)

    It isn't just the masses, either. I have argued that Boehner is under the same illusion: John Boehner's Position on the Gaming License. But when they go to look for this waste, they can't find it. This creates talking point like earlier this week about the three "ridiculous" projects the government was funding. Of course, these are all based on the names of the projects. Looking at the details showed that they were all quite reasonable.

    I know I'm very partisan, but the basis of the conservative movement seems to be outrage. When the facts are shown not to justify the outrage, the facts are abandoned because the outrage is too dear.

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  5. I just noticed this article, 30 Stupid Things The Government Is Spending Money On. One of them reads, "The federal government spends 25 billion dollars a year maintaining federal buildings that are either unused or totally vacant." That is stupid! Everyone knows you don't have maintain empty buildings!

    Most of the others are at least as ridiculous.

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  6. Going to quote a section, I genuinely am not sure if I'm onto something here or if I'm blowing smoke, but I'll going to try:

    they still support increases in specific programs even though (presumably) they believe that those programs waste money.

    I think I'm seeing a granularity issue here.

    Lets look at defense spending. That looks like a partisan outcome there, without any real deviation; 30% is approximately the number of people who form the GOP's religio-racist core voting base: hard-core and bellicose Republicans. Somewhere below 30% of the country are liberal-wing Democrats who believe the WoT is Orwellian and that the US could be safe if it stopped blowing other people's countries up rather than by doing more of that.

    A lot of Americans hold neither position strongly but have existed their entire lives in a news, movie, TV and political theatre in which the uniformed military and the flag are the primary props. To them, defense spending is simply what it is; changing it would be like changing the flag. You spend whatever you need to spend to make sure the Marine Band can play Hail to the Chief in tune.

    Now lets look at unemployment and crime. 24% want unemployment support increased, 32% want it cut, 41% don't care. Now, I may be wrong, but that looks to me like: the bottom quarter of the income distribution, where nearly everyone has been impacted by unemployment in this business cycle, vs the percentage of the country which is either comfortably retired now or will be very soon, with the section of the country that hasn't lost their job recently in the middle not giving a shit.

    However, on crime, we see 41% want the crime fighting budget pushed up, 41% don't care, and 14% want it decreased. What do you want to bet that 32% of those who want crime-fighting budgets increased are exactly the same people as want unemployment insurance cut? Those are views which ime are held complementarily by an identifiable bloc of voters (i.e. elderly Republicans and Tea-Partiers) who number, well, about 30% of the population.

    I suspect a lot of Americans believe any government program they benefit from needs to go up and a lot of Americans believe any government program they personally do not recognise benefits from is by definition waste. I phrase it that way because lots of Tea-Partiers who benefit from government programs want to 'cut entitlements' (because by 'entitlements' they think help to black people, not their perfectly deserved SS cheque, or federal subsidies of their state economies, or Medicare, which they earned, dammit...)

    So the answer to the contradictory views on waste isn't a contradiction at all. If people are basically defining anything the government does for someone else as waste, then they will call to cut those programs, but call to expand the ones which benefit them, and are therefore clearly just and proper.

    Each individual recognises benefits from only a subset of government actions, for fairly good and rational reasons.

    Surely that will result in the same aggregate data we're seeing? The vast majority of Americans think government is wasteful and should be cut, but the breakdown for specific programs more or less reflects how many people they help vs. how many people they don't vs. how many people just don't care.

    If I'm right, foreign aid should be an outlier tilted very heavily towards 'Cut', because support for foreign aid is, basically, an altruistic ideological position, and there is no US constituency which directly recognises benefits from it. And, indeed, foreign aid is a significant outlier, tilted towards 'Cut'.

    That was a very long comment, and there's a lot of blood in my caffeine stream right now, so I genuinely don't know if that made any sense or not, and if it did make sense I suspect it's been said before.

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  7. *blink*

    Indeed, it has, in this very article.

    I guess what I was trying to reach to which isn't in Jonathan's expression of the same issue is that I think that some large blocs of voters move between categories en masse affecting those numbers; i.e. people who said raise defense spending are likely to be the exact same people who said cut unemployment, hire more cops, cut foreign aid, etc. and that this explains the mismatch between overall and specific opinions.

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  8. Imo, the problem with addressing 'waste' is that there's a lot of it, but its never where people think. As mentioned in the open, people think of Al Gore's $50 stapler at Staples as an example of waste. That isn't, unfortunately, the opportunity, as VP Gore eventually discovered.

    This is because the $50 for the stapler is comprised of $1.99 of actual cash for the stapler and $48.01 of allocations of the salaries of various agency personnel. Unless you're willing to RIF the employees whose salaries are allocated to that stapler, you're gonna keep 'paying' $50, which we obviously still do, 20 years after Gore smashed that ashtray on Letterman.

    There's a related point underlying a legitimate fear about cost-saving with the ACA. ACA advocates believe that, due to the government's size, it can 'negotiate' stuff a lot cheaper than private insurance. So for example, Humana/private hospitals are charging $1.50 per pill of tylenol, and the govt can sell if for the penny or two that is its market value.

    Similar to the allocations accounting, the $1.50 represents costs recovered that the companies can't make up elsewhere in the complex and expensive health care chain. I actually have personal experience with this, but don't take my word for it: are those health care oligarchs reporting obscene margins? They aren't, are they. From which you can infer that the obscene margins on tylenol are making up for lack of pricing power elsewhere. Unless the government has *more* pricing power in those 'other' areas (unlikely), there probably isn't much for the ACA to save on the cost of stuff like OTC medicines.

    All that said, there probably is a lot of waste in the operations of a $3.5 T empire, only its buried in budgets maintained over decades. It comes about because when organizations are supposed to "zero base" their budgets, they always do, at least officially, but their fingers are crossed behind their backs, understandably, for their own protection.

    As VP Gore found out, unfortunately, that kind of waste is a lot harder to root out. Only stuff like the blunt, unpleasant measures post-2009 can effectively address it.

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  9. Not exactly my sentiments, but I'll quote one conservative blogger: "A 2011 Government Accountability Office report gave a sampling of the vastness of what could be cut, consolidated and rationalized in Washington: 44 overlapping job training programs, 18 for nutrition assistance, 82 (!) on teacher quality, 56 dealing with financial literacy, more than 20 for homelessness, etc. Total annual cost: $100 billion-$200 billion, about two to five times the entire domestic sequester." I might add to this that the Department of Education proudly proclaims that it has over 1000 advisory panels and commissions (with 40 thousand members) to guide its programs.

    I.e., to a lot of people ONE job training program, ONE food stamps program, ONE teacher training progran, ONE program to teach financial literacy, ONE homeless program, etc., would be sufficient (or even superfluous).

    I don't propose to argue the merits of that view. I just note people do seem to feel that government has gotten ... a tad excessive, with little reward.

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