…because I’m an economist and a mom–that’s why!

The Bipartisan Deficit Reduction Glass Is (Almost) Half Full

April 21st, 2011 . by economistmom


Contrary to a typo in an NPR transcript earlier this week, I do not work for the “Conquered Coalition.”  (LOL.  It’s been corrected since.)  We at the Concord Coalition, like many “deficit hawks” who are really more appropriately considered “deficit pandas” (a la Ruth Marcus–I love it!), haven’t given up on fiscal responsibility just yet.

Take the recently-reported Washington Post-ABC News poll that’s been characterized (in a Washington Post print headline) as showing “little backing for debt remedies.” Stories about this poll have tended to emphasize the majority who are opposed to each item in a “pick one” menu of tough choices:  78 percent opposed to cutting Medicare, 69 percent opposed to cutting Medicaid, 56 percent opposed to cutting defense spending.  The only “pick one” option that a majority (72 percent) supported:  “raising taxes on incomes over $250,000.”  And even that is not as agreeable as it sounds, considering that households with incomes over $250,000 make up only about 2 percent of the population–i.e., you’d think we could get a little closer to 98 percent support on that one.

But that majority opposition to each of the “tough choices” is because respondents were asked to take or leave each of those tough choices as the single strategy for deficit reduction.  No one wants to agree to give up something if they think others in society aren’t going to give up something, too.  None of those “pick one” choices conveyed a notion of shared sacrifice or a “balanced” approach.

It’s the response to the poll question below–which does start to get at the possibility of compromise for the common good–that deserves more of our attention:

18. Say the national debt could be reduced significantly by raising taxes on all Americans by a small percentage and making small reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits. Is this something you would support or oppose? Do you support/oppose this strongly or somewhat?

          -------- Support --------   --------- Oppose --------     No
          NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly   opinion
4/17/11   45       19         26      53       13         40         2

Only slightly over 50 percent oppose this more balanced approach which combines (”small”) cuts in the major entitlement programs with “raising taxes on all Americans.”  This is a glass that is (almost) half full.  We haven’t even begun to make the full sales pitch on this “shared sacrifice” plan with more specifics about how Medicare and Social Security can be trimmed while actually strengthening the safety-net parts of those programs (reassuring the liberals), or how revenues can be raised in a progressive manner by reducing “tax entitlements” rather than merely jacking up tax rates (reassuring the conservatives).

This gives me hope.

The same poll shows that a majority of Americans (59 percent) already agree that the best way to reduce the deficit is through the only-generally-described “combination” of tax increases and spending cuts–not just one or the other.  They’re just not going to agree to a particular example of that more balanced approach without learning more about the details of the proposals and considering how those specific proposals would affect their own families and would mesh with their views of the appropriate roles of government.

This really seems quite doable.  We just need to keep talking–and listening.  It’s a conversation we’ve only just begun, but recently it seems to me (”glass half full” person that I am) that we’re starting to grow up about it.

22 Responses to “The Bipartisan Deficit Reduction Glass Is (Almost) Half Full”

  1. comment number 1 by: Gipper

    Why refer to really stupid polls like the one you just cited? It’s time to refer to mathematics.

    Or, offer polling questions with real scenarios like:

    “Keep your Medicare and SS benefits constant and raise taxes by one third for everyone.” Or

    “Cut Medicare and SS benefits by one fifth and raise taxes by one sixth.”

    “Cut Medicare and SS benefits by one third and keep taxes constant.”

    I just pulled those fractions off the top of my head, but I think everyone understands what a realistic poll would look like.

    What Economistmom doesn’t get is that the Republicans will NEVER raise taxes until there are massive, blodletting cuts in the federal government that could appease the howls from the base.

    Everyone said the Tea Partiers were hippocrites because they opposed tax increases and opposed cuts to Medicare in the PPACA. Well, I haven’t seen the Tea Partiers screaming at Paul Ryan’s proposal to cut Medicare. This just proves that the right side of the spectrum at least has a coherent plan for eventually balancing the budget and a solid political base for launching it.

    Obama and the Left have no coherent plan they’ve shown us that accomplishes a similar outcome that’s not held together with string and paper clips like Medical Cost Control panels and automatic triggers. You cannot build a budget on Hope. It’s got to be real.

    Personally, I like the 21% plan. Get Bowles-Simpson revenue increases to 21% of GDP and cuts in expenditures to 21% of GDP. Both sides give up a lot to get to 21%. Any more spending beyond that could be determined at the state level if you really think that’s not enough government for you.

    It’s a good compromise, but Obama isn’t going there because he’s an old-fashioned, big-government liberal-leftist. Fasten your seatbelts folks. The debt limit vote is going to be fun to watch.

  2. comment number 2 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    Gipper, you are on a roll. You’re absolutely right. Why tiptoe around the problem when it’s only a poll? These pollsters aren’t running for office, are they?

    I think you are (more than less) right about the Ryan and the small government movement are marginally less hypocritical than the rest. Unless these Tea Partiers really are hypocrites, they are proposing to do something that cuts into their own benefits and not just the other guy’s. Those with the grand vision of government, on the other hand, have not committed to sacrificing anything on the benefit *or* tax side. Having said that, I just finished watching a very good analysis by David Stockman on The Daily Ticker (Yahoo). Stockman notes, quite correctly, that the cuts proposed by Ryan really don’t kick in for quite some time and thus are not entirely credible. Perhaps that poll opinion needs to include the phrase “suppose this or that would be effective starting two or three years from now…”.

    If Obama is going to continue to insist on his vision of government, then at least he needs to start being honest with the American public: you get to keep your vision of government (or at least most of it), but it’s worth it and you’ll have to pay for it. He won’t do that of course, because it would be political suicide. It’s sadly ironic, but the people he and his party are deceiving the most are their own loyal constituents.

  3. comment number 3 by: John Bailey

    Why doesn’t Concord sponsor an honest poll?

  4. comment number 4 by: AMTbuff

    The only “pick one” option that a majority (72 percent) supported: “raising taxes on incomes over $250,000.” And even that is not as agreeable as it sounds, considering that households with incomes over $250,000 make up only about 2 percent of the population–i.e., you’d think we could get a little closer to 98 percent support on that one.

    Diane, your logic on this point is defective. Would you expect 90% of the public to favor eliminating welfare payments to the other 10%? Democracy could never survive if every vote depended on the direct and immediate financial interest of the voter.

    Back to the topic. If the public were accurately informed, they would support the Ryan plan plus large tax increases as a package to permanently close the fiscal gap. This cannot happen until both parties are willing to let the public choose the country’s direction. Committed ideologues, especially those on the left, are unwilling to allow this because they secretly believe that the public is incompetent to make such a choice.

    Therefore each party is attempting to force its preferred outcome regardless of public preference. The parties do this by manipulating events (c.f. Obamacare, extension of Bush tax cuts) and by presenting inaccurate and misleading projections indicating that the toughest choices are not necessary.

    Concord needs to stand against these tactics rather than engaging in them.

  5. comment number 5 by: Jim Glass

    As the other commenters say, the polls aren’t realistic — and thus, if anything, they compound the problem by furthering the public’s misunderstanding (and denial) of reality.

    We need a poll like this:

    The Congressional Budget Office has stated that by 2030 income taxe rates must increase across-the-board by 50% on everybody, individuals and businesses, to keep pace with promised spending on Social Security and Medicare … or promised Social Security benefits must be reduced by 30% and Medicare benefits by 54%, to not rise above current levels relative to the taxes financing them … or some combination of both must occur … else the US economy will collapse under exploding debt burden and the credit rating of the US will fall to “junk”.

    Please choose one among these four options as your policy preference in light of this fact. By 2030 you want Congress to…

    [A] Increase income taxes by 50% on everybody — including on your own pension, IRA, and life savings — to preserve all promised Social Security and Medicare benefits.

    [B] Slash promised spending on Social Security benefits by 30% and Medicare benefits by 54% — including slashing your own benefits — to preserve current tax rates.

    [C] “Split the difference” by compromising 50-50 via a 25% increase of income tax rates on everybody (including on you: your income, pension, IRA, life savings, etc.) while *also* reducing spending on Social Security benefits by 15% and Medicare benefits by 27% (including cutting your benefits).

    [D] Do nothing: pay all promised benefits with no tax increase to finance them, until annual deficits and the national debt compound up to the point where the USA’s credit rating becomes “junk” and the economy crashes.

    You must choose one of the above four options — there is no fifth option.

    Your choice: ________

    I believe I’ve suggested before that a poll like this be put Concord web site home page.

    In addition to producing revealing results, it’d be an attention-grabber for Concord, don’t you think?

    Possibly there could be a bonus item that could be checked only after selecting one of the four above answers…

    [ ] I protest! I don’t believe it. I believe current Social Security and Medicare benefit promises can be happliy kept with only modest-to-zero reductions in benefits or increases in taxes, nothing like those described above.

  6. comment number 6 by: AMTbuff

    You forgot two options: Obama’s “Tax the fellow behind that tree” and Norquist’s “Cut tax rates to grow the economy enough to pay for everything we need”.

    I suggest adding some thought-provoking* material such as “If China, Japan, and others suddenly lost their appetite for US government bonds, simply printing money to cover the huge gap would quickly result in hyperinflation, destroying the US economy. Therefore our government will be forced instead to reduce its spending to match available revenues, or even lower if net redemptions of government debt occur.”

    *for non-MMTers. Since MMTers already possess the secret of money printing, they don’t need to waste any energy thinking.

  7. comment number 7 by: B Davis

    Only slightly over 50 percent oppose this more balanced approach which combines (”small”) cuts in the major entitlement programs with “raising taxes on all Americans.”

    I’m glad to see emphasis on all Americans. I’m very much bothered by the stance of many Republicans against all tax hikes, even the partial rolling back of a tax cut that has proven itself to be an obvious mistake. However, I also bothered by the limiting of any rollback to only the two percent who make over $250,000 per year. Perhaps high-wage workers need to shoulder more of the burden and the lowest-wage workers can shoulder little, if any of it. But asking for sacrifice from just the top two percent of workers does nothing to instill a sense of “shared” sacrifice.

    This is a glass that is (almost) half full. We haven’t even begun to make the full sales pitch on this “shared sacrifice” plan with more specifics about how Medicare and Social Security can be trimmed while actually strengthening the safety-net parts of those programs (reassuring the liberals), or how revenues can be raised in a progressive manner by reducing “tax entitlements” rather than merely jacking up tax rates (reassuring the conservatives).

    This gives me hope.

    Agreed. I think that very few people understand that the value of initial Social Security benefits are slated to grow faster than inflation. Simply limiting their growth to inflation, insuring that future retirees get just the same inflation-adjusted benefit as current retirees, would do much to help Social Security’s finances. Similarly, the overall quality of medical benefits that are provided to each Medicare patient will likely continue to improve. They just cannot improve at quite the rate that is slated under the current system. If we can truly establish a system of shared sacrifice and show people that that sacrifice is really relatively minimal, I think that some kind of consensus can be reached, at least among the moderate majority.

  8. comment number 8 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    Jim Glass,

    I hope that your proposed poll contained a typo. Your proposed language states “…By 2030 you want Congress to…”.

    Heck, by 2030 a good percentage of the adult respondents will be dead!

    While the economic circumstances are currently not ideal for drastic budget cuts or tax increases, unless there is some immediacy to the proposed action, it doesn’t mean much to voters, politicians or poll respondents.

    In my comment above, I referred to comments made by the very knowledgeable and imminently straightforward Mr. David Stockman. He noted, and I agree, that the most important thing to look at in these budget proposals is what the plan proposes to do in the next two to four years. Anything beyond that tends not to be credible or enforceable. By 2030 the problem is already too acute to do anything. Besides, it wouldn’t be the same Congress (I hope).

    Your poll should reflect the immediacy of the problem and the necessary solution by asking, for example, “Which of the following options would you prefer Congress to enact with an effective date of January 1, 2013″, or something similar to that.

  9. comment number 9 by: JR

    “Unless these Tea Partiers really are hypocrites, they are proposing to do something that cuts into their own benefits and not just the other guy’s.”

    I disagree with that statement. The Ryan plan for Medicare would not effect anyone aged 55 or older. Certainly many tea party members would be affected by the changes in Medicare, but many would not. Additionally, those tea partiers close too, but not quite 55, would also be more likely to be held harmless from the discrepancy resulting from the increase in vouchers compared with the higher increases in health care. And should it ever go any further than a House vote, I suspect we’d see that age floor drop even further.

  10. comment number 10 by: Arne

    To turn it into a liberal push poll:

    The national debt is growing too fast because we are mandating services and not paying for them. Do you support returning to past tax rates and reducing the rate of growth of health care in order to prevent the debt from creating another financial meltdown?

  11. comment number 11 by: Shadowfax

    More intelligent polling is critical here. “Rank the following budget remedies from most preferred to least preferred from this list of 10 ideas.” Each idea should have a combination of tax hikes and spending cuts.

  12. comment number 12 by: Shadowfax

    Or alternatively, present 10 tax hikes and 10 spending cuts and ask them to rank them; they don’t have to go together.

  13. comment number 13 by: Jim Glass

    Or alternatively, present 10 tax hikes and 10 spending cuts

    Doesn’t work unless you tell them the total must equal a specified amount, which must be *large*.

    These polls with options to choose from are done all the time, with people saying they want to cut the least in benefits and increase the least in taxes. Then commentators say “polled Americans are schizo” or whatever.

    But they aren’t. Ask people if they want a free luch, they’ll say “sure!” Heck, I want a free lunch, I’ll tell a pollster that too.

    You have to ask people: “The spending gap to be closed is $X. Do you want taxes, including *yours*, increased by $X? Or do you prefer benefits, including *yours*, reduced by $X?”

    Then you can give them a list of various options, with a dollar value each. But if you don’t force them to select options totaling up to $X, the poll is useless.

  14. comment number 14 by: SteveinCH

    Actually, the correct approach to this problem would be discrete choice analysis where voter preferences are inferred from answers to specific designed choices as opposed to unitary poll questions.

  15. comment number 15 by: Arne

    Go back to this tool,,
    add some sliders for the rates on taxes and cuts, and a front end to assure that you are getting a meaningfull sample of respondents, and you could learn something about what citizens would prefer our representatives actually do.

    I would also propose an income tax surcharge to automatically cover a portion of the interest we are paying each year. Seeing taxes change as we have to pay for borrowing might provide a useful incentive to reach a balance.

  16. comment number 16 by: SteveinCH

    Except of course for all the policy options not represented there Arne.

    Not surprised you like the NYT tool given the options presented.

  17. comment number 17 by: AMTbuff

    This sort of polling would not address my primary concern, which is to establish sustainable spending programs. If Medicare et al were reformed to permanently cap their cost as a percentage of GDP (in other words, health care reform worthy of the name), then I would favor almost any tax rates needed to make the plan succeed.

    All the fancy comparison tools in the world mean nothing without specific structural changes to guarantee that the problem will not reappear later despite the higher tax rates. The survey needs to include options that flatten the government spending curve. I’d like those options to more credible than the back-loaded Ryan plan, which to me appears politically unsustainable.

  18. comment number 18 by: Jim Glass

    Just spent my exciting Saturday evening watching C-SPAN’s 50th anniversary coverage of the Apollo moon program. They covered poll results that measured the public’s opinion of the space program during the 1960s.

    Consistent results over the years:

    “Do you support/approve of the space/moon landing program?: Yes, soldily so.”

    “Do you think the cost of the space/moon landing program is worth it?: No, solidly so.”

    If you ask voters if they want something that sounds good, they always say: Yes.

    If you ask voters if they want to pay the full price of what that thing costs, they always so: No.

    It never changes. So to get meaningful results from polls, you have to ask questions a different way.

  19. comment number 19 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    There is an interesting little article in the Wall Street Journal which sheds some light on how these poll questions get formulated.

    The Journal cites an a paper by Alan Krueger, a professor at Princeton University, with respect to the health care mandate under PPACA. Krueger, who is also a “Senior Scientist” at Gallup, suggests certain questions that Gallup should adopt with respect to polling on PPACA and the mandate. Krueger and his colleagues at Princeton have rather strong and consistent views in favor of PPACA and one sees here how very political the formulation of polling questions by organizatons such as Gallup, has become. Of course, other polls likely contain questions that result from bias leaning the other direction. The point is that polls are only as good as the questions asked and these poll questions are subject to a lot of politics and manipulation through input by “Senior Scientists” and others, just like everything else in our hyper-partisan political culture.

  20. comment number 20 by: Arne

    “Except of course for all the policy options not represented there”

    Dude, it is the process that (might) produce meaningful results. There are many things from both right and left that would need to be added to really put everything on the table.

  21. comment number 21 by: Jim Glass

    sees here how very political the formulation of polling questions by organizatons such as Gallup, has become

    And phrasing *really* matters. Some years back the NY Times ran a shocking, major Page One story: “Most Americans Say Holocaust May Never Have Happened!!”

    What is wrong with this country? the Times went on and on, in its own inimitable way. Woe! What can we do?

    We can redo the poll. Some critics pointed out the poll question was “Do you believe it is possible that the Holocaust never happened?”

    Ask “is it possible…” and most Americans, being open minded people, will say yes to anything. Is it possible Obama is a space alien? Most American say yes! Is it possible Elizabeth Taylor was a Soviet spy who was just murdered by Putin to keep her from finally talking? Most American say yes! But ask them what they really believe and you get entirely different results.

    The poll question was re-aksed: “Do you believe the Holocaust never happened?”, and the “yes” result became less than 2%. The Times’s response was like Emily Letila’s, “Never mind”.

    Oh, not surprisingly, the original poll was done by a fund-raising group that benefitted from publicizing a supposedly high rate of Holocaust denial. They just over-did it. :-)

  22. comment number 22 by: Brooks


    Another problem I see with the wording of the survey question was that, rather than asking about “the Holocaust” the question (in both cases, I think) referred to “the Nazi extermination of the Jews”. If “exterminate” means to kill off completely, the answer correct answer would be that it (”extermination”) did not happen, since there were survivors.