American Voters Continue Their Perpetual Fiscal Immaturity
We won't be able to solve our fiscal problems until the American people grow up. So far, there are no signs of that happening.
As Congress heads towards a battle over the Fiscal Year 2012 Budget, spending, and raising the ceiling on the National Debt, a new poll from The New York Times demonstrates once again that the American public has no clear idea what it wants when it comes to fiscal policy:
As President Obama and Congress brace to battle over how to reduce chronic annual budget deficits, Americans overwhelmingly say that in general they prefer cutting government spending to paying higher taxes, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Yet their preference for spending cuts, even in programs that benefit them, dissolves when they are presented with specific options related to Medicare and Social Security, the programs that directly touch the most people and also are the biggest drivers of the government’s projected long-term debt.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans choose higher payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security over reduced benefits in either program. And asked to choose among cuts to Medicare, Social Security or the nation’s third-largest spending program — the military — a majority by a large margin said cut the Pentagon.
While Americans are near-unanimous in calling deficits a problem — a “very serious” problem, say 7 out of 10 — a majority believes it should not be necessary for them to pay higher taxes to bridge the shortfall between what the government spends and what it takes in. But given a choice of often-discussed revenue options, they preferred a national sales tax or a limit in the deduction for mortgage interest to a higher gasoline tax or taxing employer-provided health benefits.
Americans’ sometimes contradictory impulses on spending and taxes suggest the political crosscurrents facing both parties as they gird for debate over how to address the fiscal woes of a nation with an aging population, a complex tax system and an accumulated debt that is starting to weigh on the economy.
None of this is really a surprise, of course. Back in December, there was another poll that similarly showed that the American appetite for sacrifice in order to deal with a problem that pretty much everyone agrees in unsustainable was virtually non-existent. And, of course, the proposals put forward by the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission after the midterm elections fell flat with the pubic, and with Congress.
So once again we learn that the public still has not gotten the message that everyone is going to have to sacrifice if we are going to deal with the fiscal problems facing governments at all levels in this country. From the left, the means accepting that the entitlement state as we’ve known is unsustainable and that we aren’t going to solve our problems merely by taxing the rich. From the right, it means accepting the fact that the defense budget is not sacrosanct, that a foreign policy of perpetual war is fiscally unsustainable, and that, yes, we’re going to have to raise some taxes on some people for awhile. For the American middle, it means accepting the fact that they can’t continue refusing to make the choices necessary to get us back on a sustainable path. For all of us, it means accepting the fact that it’s largely our fault we’re in this mess. We put the people in office who created this leviathan. We told them we wanted lots of benefits from Washington but that we didn’t want to pay taxes. We’re the ones who stood by and said nothing while Congress spent money the government didn’t have. Now, it’s time to fix it. It’s going to be painful, but not nearly as painful as it will be if we let this continue until things get even worse than they are now.
When the Bowles-Simpson plan was released after the elections, I said this:
If we lived in a country with adult political parties, the release of the Commission’s report would serve as the beginning of a long overdue national conversation about how to get our fiscal house in order. Liberals would recognize that social spending would have to be cut, and conservatives would recognize that defense spending cuts and tax increases would have to be on the table. Instead, what we’re likely to see is more of the same political gamesmanship — liberals accusing the GOP of wanting to starve Grandma, conservatives accusing liberals of just wanting to raise taxes so they can spend more. And the debt will continue to rise.
At some point we’re going to be forced to deal with these problems, but it’s not going to happen until we start feeling the pain that we could ward off if we’d just grow up already
So far, I’m seeing very few signs that it’s happening.