The new Republican-led Congress is trying to get started on it’s campaign promise cut spending. Apparently it’s not as easy as they thought. Part of the problem is their ignorance about the federal budget and budget process (see GOP Cuts Budget with Axe). But not understanding the difference between an appropriation bill and an authorization bill isn’t their big challenge. I’m confident that even the slow learners will pick that up eventually.
The bigger problem in cutting spending has the econ-blogosphere all atwitter. It seems that Americans only really want cuts to some big, non-specific, generic “government spending”. When it comes to actually cutting what the government spends in on particular programs, they sing a different tune. They don’t want cuts to Medicare, or to Social Security, or to the military (if it affects the base/contractor near them), or to education, or to WIC, or most anything else except maybe foreign aid. My guess is they will also oppose cuts to foreign aid once they figure out that much U.S. foreign aid actually subsidizes our sale tanks/planes/corn produced just down the street. Conservative columnists like Bruce Bartlett have described it as “Voter Ignorance Threatens Deficit Reduction”. Catherine Rampell of the NYTimes weighs in similarly with “Keep Your Government Hands Off My Government Programs!”, which documents how large numbers of government spending-beneficiaries don’t think they get any benefits from the government, including 40-44% of Medicare and Social Security beneficiaries. Even Krugman has weighed in on the topic.
Most of this commentary has adopted a tone of “it’s hard to cut spending and the deficit when voters are so ignorant”. But I wonder if the the ignorant part isn’t the voters, but rather the self-styled pundits and politicians who are the ignorant ones. Voters are going along with the generic “cut spending in concept” because they’ve been repeatedly sold and preached propaganda claiming that we have a “deficit crisis”. (We don’t have a deficit or debt crisis in the U.S. –see here, here, and here.) Voters, when polled, go along with saying they want to cut spending because that’s what’s popular – it’s what we’re told over and over. It’s a popular thing to say that government is all waste. Our culture is built around the idea that only private-profit seeking is “productive” or “valuable”. But when voters are asked about specific programs, they do see the value. They know that Social Security is necessary. Medicare is necessary. Government spending on education, infrastructure, basic research, science, and the like are all necessary government services. The private sector will not provide those services in the proper quantity or at an efficient price. Hence they oppose specific proposed cuts in polls. It may be the voters, who depend on the value of those government services, know the value better than the pundits, experts, and politicians who aren’t personally familiar with these programs because they’re in the elite, higher income group.