I recommend to everyone an excellent Mark Blumenthal summary of the polling on government spending. The results are familiar, but still worth re-reading: Americans generally want to cut government spending, but do not want to cut spending on specific programs; indeed, most people want to spend more on most programs.

Blumenthal brings in Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who tries to square the circle by noting that most people also believe that large portions of federal spending are simply wasted. Now, that doesn’t quite work, at least not entirely; unless people actually believe there’s an account marked “Waste” they still support increases in specific programs even though (presumably) they believe that those programs waste money. In other words, I don’t think you can really interpret the poll findings without attributing quite a bit of inconsistency to respondents.

Still, “waste” is an interesting topic. Indeed: Bobby Jindal’s column today about sequestration was based, more than anything, on incredulity that Barack Obama couldn’t find enough waste to cut that sequestration could be implemented “without jeopardizing critical services.” Granted, he has no actual suggestions about waste; his only specific suggestion for replacing sequestration is to delay Obamacare implementation of exchanges and Medicaid expansion. Presumably, that’s not “waste” — whether or not one supports Medicaid for people just over the poverty line and subsidized health care insurance for those making more than that, it’s a fairly efficient expenditure in terms of buying what the government intends.

Of course, the question here is what counts as waste. And here’s where we could use some help. As far as I know, we have questions about waste, or waste-fraud-abuse, but no good questions about what they means to voters. To me, “waste” would mean, for example, that it takes six government workers to do something that one private sector worker would do. Or: waste would be a government agency buying, say, lots of extra computers which then sit in boxes because they weren’t actually needed. Or what Al Gore used to talk about: buying office supplies for ten times what they would cost at Staples because of bureaucratically-mandated procedures. On the other hand, money spent on some government program I don’t like — say, building a wall on the Mexican border — wouldn’t count to me as “waste” in this context, as long as it was done efficiently. But I certainly could imagine someone thinking that such money (or enforcement of drug laws if you think those drugs should be legal, or the Iraq War if you think it was a mistake, or I suppose Social Security if you are against that program) is “government waste.” Not only that, but anyone who thinks of it that way is certainly correct that there’s plenty of that kind of waste — but your waste, then, might be my vital program.

That is, there’s no “correct” answer about how to interpret all of this. What we need, then, is to learn more about what polling respondents (and, for that matter, politicians) mean when they say that there’s tons of government waste. Hey, pollsters! How about some questions to help us understand it. And, hey, reporters! How about pressing politicians when they claim there’s lots of waste.

[Originally posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.