As the comic strip character Pogo famously put it, ” We have met the enemy, and he is us.” A new New York Times/CBS poll makes clear that Americans don’t want to raise taxes but we don’t want to cut spending, either. From the NYT:
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.
Americans have been misled about what has created the huge longterm deficit. They believe it has been caused by programs for poor “parasites,” a vague practice of government “waste” and foreign aid. In fact, the major drivers of federal spending are Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and the Pentagon. You don’t cut spending unless you substantially cut those areas.
As NYT economics writer David Leonhardt put it:
We have come to believe a story about the deficit that is largely not true.
It’s a comforting story, to be sure. It holds the promise of a painless solution, because it suggests that the country’s huge looming deficits are not really our fault. Instead, they seem to stem from weak-willed politicians, wasteful government programs that do not benefit us and tax avoidance by people we have never met.
In truth, the coming deficits are a result, above all, of the fact that most Americans are scheduled to receive far more in Medicare benefits than they have paid in Medicare taxes. Conservative and liberal economists agree on this point. After Medicare on the list of big, growing budget items come Social Security and the military.
The three programs are roughly as popular as tax increases are unpopular – which is precisely why solving the deficit problem will be so difficult.