Cut spending (but don’t really)

CUT SPENDING (BUT DON’T REALLY)…. For years, a variety of polls from a variety of outlets during a variety of conditions all show the same thing: Americans want to see the government cut public spending — in the abstract. Asked for specifics, the same Americans actually like public spending and don’t want to see cuts.

Kevin Drum flags the latest example.

Ah, the American public. God love ’em. The Economist asked if they’d rather tackle the federal deficit by cutting spending or raising taxes, and the runaway winner was cutting spending, by a margin of 62% to 5%. So what are we willing to cut? Answer: pretty much nothing.

As you can see, there wasn’t one single area that even a third of the country wanted to cut back on. Except — hold on there! Down in the middle of the table. There is one area that everyone’s willing to trim: foreign aid. Good ‘ol foreign aid. A category that, as Roger McShane dryly points out, “makes up less than 1% of America’s total spending.”

Beyond that, there were only four areas that even a quarter of the population was willing to cut: mass transit, agriculture, housing, and the environment. At a rough guess, these areas account for about 3% of the federal budget. You could slash their budgets by a third and still barely make a dent in federal spending.

This phenomenon is incredibly common. GW’s John Sides published a piece a couple of months ago, noting that even self-identified conservatives want to cut spending … except for all of the things the government actually spends money on. They do like the idea of spending cuts, but balk at the particulars.

Around the same time, Pew asked Americans if they wanted to see more spending, less spending, or no change on various parts of the budget. The only area that cracked the 20% threshold was “foreign aid.” In literally every other area of the budget, people wanted to see more spending, not less.

In February, when President Obama’s proposed budget included spending cuts and reduced industry subsidies, Republican lawmakers complained bitterly, saying the cuts might adversely affect their states and districts.

It’s something voters should try to keep in mind during the midterms. For every candidate who boasts about his/her desire to cut spending, there should be a straightforward follow-up: where? If they can’t answer the question, they probably don’t mean what they’re saying.