Thursday, November 18, 2010

How the US public thinks we should cut the federal deficit (NBC/WSJ Poll)

Andrew Sullivan points out that the responses to two items in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll, in combination, suggest how serious the public really is about taking concrete steps to reduce the federal deficit. Many Americans claim to be very concerned about reducing the deficit (though, unlike some pundits, they put a much higher priority on reducing unemployment). So would they do this by cutting expenditures, raising taxes, or both?

Q32a [H]ow comfortable are you with the idea of spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit that would include such things as cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending? Are you very comfortable, somewhat comfortable, somewhat uncomfortable, or not comfortable at all?

Oppose: 70% ("Not comfortable at all" = 43%)
Support: 27%

(Of course, many people believe that unpopular items like welfare and foreign aid constitute a major proportion of the federal budget, so that one could achieve major cuts by slashing expenditures in those categories, plus ending earmarks, firing some civil servants, etc. But those beliefs happen to be inaccurate--or, to be less polite about it, delusional. If you oppose any cuts in spending on Medicare, Social Security, and/or the military budget, then in fact you have ruled out any significant reductions in overall federal spending.)

Q32b [H]ow comfortable are you with the idea of increasing tax revenues to reduce the federal deficit that would include such things as increasing taxes on gasoline, limiting deductions on home mortgages over five hundred thousand dollars, and changes to corporate taxes? Are you very comfortable, somewhat comfortable, somewhat uncomfortable, or not comfortable at all?

Oppose: 59% ("Not comfortable at all" = 36%)
Support: 39%

=> You can draw your own conclusions. (One obvious conclusion, of course, is that one should always take polling results with a grain of salt, especially when considering what they imply for actual public policy decisions.)

=> On the other hand, the poll results also make it clear that Americans are not opposed to all tax increases. Question #30 asks whether or not respondents favor letting the Bush tax cuts expire, which will happen automatically in 2011 unless Congress extends them. Those who favor eliminating all the Bush tax cuts plus those who favor eliminating them only for families with a taxable income over $250,000 per year (Obama's compromise proposal) add up to 49%. The proportion who favor permanently extending all the Bush tax cuts--which is the position of the Republican Party, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and so on--is 23%. (Another 23% favor extending all the tax cuts temporarily, for two or three years.)

So although the people, in their collective wisdom, are ambivalent on these issues, and seem generally unwilling to make any sacrifices themselves, perhaps their overall position isn't completely incoherent? Still, that leaves open the question of why they just voted heavily in the midterm elections for the party that is strongly committed to permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% or so--a position that less than a quarter of these respondents support.

--Jeff Weintraub

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