Posted by: Jeff | April 8, 2010

Americans’ Budget Schizophrenia

Both Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein link to the same graph, and its pretty eye-opening. For each government program, the blue bar represents the percentage of the American populace willing to cut it, and the red bar represents the percentage of the federal budget that program takes up. If you want to know why balancing the budget by cutting spending will be well-nigh impossible, this pretty much sums it up:

The graph was produced by Annie Lowery using the following:

Today, an Economist/YouGov poll making the rounds shows that Americans would vastly prefer budget cuts to new taxes — by 62 percent to 5 percent. The poll goes on to ask Americans which government spending programs they would choose to cut: “If government spending is reduced in order to balance the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?” (Respondents could pick more than one thing to axe.)

I would add a few stray thoughts. One, I would be interested in seeing these two graphs matched up with a third graph; what percentage of the federal budget does the public perceive each of these programs to take up. For instance, it’s pretty well documented that large portions of the public think foreign aid takes up way more of the budget than it actually does, and I suspect the overwhelming willingness to cut that program is at least partly tied to that fact. In which case, public willingness to cut a program could (hopefully) be influenced by public perception of the size of the program. Which would suggest a large part of the political problem here could be solved by better civic education.

Two, it’s also remarkable that foreign aid is the only program for which willingness to cut extends above 30 percent of the populace. (I am particularly encouraged that the desire to cut “aid to the poor” does not even rise to 20 percent.) A conservative could argue that Americans still really are believers in small government – they simply haven’t felt the full impact of the taxes needed to fund these programs sustainably, and once they do they’ll change their tune – but on the surface at least, this graph doesn’t help that case.


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