Thursday, April 8, 2010

Cutting Spending

Kevin Drum's Chart of the Day yesterday is from the Economist, which polled and found (again) just how little Americans want to cut spending on specific items, notwithstanding an abstract preference for cutting spending in general.  And no such story is complete with ridiculing the usual finding that the one thing that Americans are closest to approving cuts in is foreign aid, which of course takes up only a tiny portion of the budget.  Hey, I do the same thing!  And Drum's version is just fine.

Just to pile on a bit, however: it's even worse!  Not just because it turns out that the ideal point people pick for foreign aid turns out to be (if I remember correctly) something like 3% of the budget, which is far higher than the US actually spends.  But because if you break the category down, the same thing happens: the overall category (foreign aid) is unpopular, but the specifics are generally popular.  By far the biggest item is Israel, and Americans most love Israel, and think that the US should send them aid (the only poll I could find -- bottom of the page -- on this showed about half of respondents approved of current levels of military and economic aid, with a somewhat larger minority approving of cuts than the minority supporting increased levels).  I do suspect that voters probably would support cuts in aid to Egypt and Jordan, but the big increase in foreign aid in recent years is for fighting HIV in Africa, and (while I don't have any numbers on it) I'm confident that voters are all for that spending.

I think the same is true in other categories, as well..."defense spending" is relatively less popular, but at least when I've asked students about it the only subcategory that wasn't popular was new high-tech weapons, and that's been fairly mixed.

Of course, a lot of this is incredibly soft, and so the results can be easily manipulated by changing question wording.  What's more, when public opinion is inconsistent like this both sides are going to say that the public "really" supports them, but in fact what's probably more accurate is to say that the public just doesn't have rational opinions about a lot of things.  At any rate, anyone looking for logical consistency from voters on budget items is going to be very disappointed.


  1. I think that public incoherence on this is really scary, because of the looming budget disaster and the dis-incentive that public ignorance creates for the GOP to raise taxes and the Dems to cut spending, which is the only way the USA avoids disaster, IMO. Both parties want deficit reduction to be the other's project, so that the other will take the inevitable blame from the public.

    With that said, this is my impossible dream for educating the public on the budget deficit. In planning there are a lot of new interactive tools (like keypad polling, most famously used in the post-Katrina rebuilding process) that we use to get feedback from the public and also educate the public. The advantage of a public process is that it force people to get beyond platitudes, and make real trade-offs to solve a problem.

    So my impossible dream is that they do a nationwide process using these tools to get public input on how to reduce the budget deficit. The biggest problem right now is that people don't understand what we spend most of our money on (defense, medicare/medicaid, and social security). They aren't educated on the problem and therefore think some magical solution can be found, where government spending is cut without it hurting their own pocketbooks (which is why foreign aid is a popular budget cut, because people think it won't affect them. but they know everything else will affect them or someone they know.)

    A public process would involve huge public meetings in every region of the country, where everyone had a voting keypad in their hand.

    First round of meetings: have presentations on the basic contours of the budget situation and get basic public input.

    Second round of meetings: create several scenarios to reduce the budget deficit based on the public input from the first round. These scenarios would roughly be:
    1.All reductions in spending
    2.Mix of reductions in spending and tax increases
    3.All tax increases.

    Have people vote on their preferred scenario using keypad polling. The advantage of keypad polling is it lets the "Broderian silent majority" have a voice without getting drowned out by the shouters on the political fringes.

    Third meetings: bring back specific policy options based on the preferred scenario, so people can see how it would effect their lives.

    My guess is that if you seriously engaged people you would end up with option #2 being the majority opinion. Hopefully that would give Congress the cover to act. To me this sounds like an Obama-esque move that, although the logistics would be just ridiculous, could be pulled off. The Deficit Reduction Commission could take the lead to lend an aura of bi-partisanship to the proceedings.

    Desperate times call for desperate measures....

  2. Democracy is just a terrible idea......


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