Like many other members of the commentariat, I’ve argued that the forthcoming election is about the role of government in our lives, with starkly different answers from the two parties. Moreover, polling data suggest that the electorate is quite sharply divided along this axis.
But the more I learn about this framing of the debate and the alleged evidence for it, the more I’m convinced we’re missing something. Most Americans, even those who say otherwise, are actually supportive of much of what government does, and most of their representatives feel the same way, despite their shouting to the contrary. This suggests that plans for vastly shrinking government are deeply unrealistic and misleading.
First, the evidence and what’s wrong with it. In a recent Washington Post poll 55% preferred a “smaller government” supporting “fewer services.” There was great variation, of course, with 98% of Tea Partiers agreeing, compared to only 9% of “urban liberals.” But as you’d expect, significant majorities of both Republicans and Independents say they support a smaller government that does less, which is a fair description of the Republican platform and is embodied in their budget proposals.
The problem is that this is a 40,000-feet-up question, one that leads many centrist/right-leaning respondents to think about “big government,” intrusive regulations, taxes, and budget deficits, all big negatives to them. But if you fly a lot lower and ask those same respondents about specifics—about Medicare, infrastructure investment, education, medical research, defense spending, veterans’ benefits, and even certain aspects of the safety net, you get very different answers (in a poll from January, 63% of Republicans and 74% of independents said that cutting food stamps is the wrong way to reduce spending; another poll shows 70% of Tea Partiers oppose Medicare cuts).
The same Post poll cited above provides some back up: When you ask a slightly more nuanced question about whether certain goods and services would be available to ordinary people absent government intervention—a question that hints at the role of government amidst market failure—two-thirds of respondents, including 55% of Republicans, 70% of religious Republicans, and even 30% of Tea Partiers agree.
I learned about this difference in poll results by altitude first hand as a member as the President’s economics team during the implementation of the Recovery Act. If you asked people about the Recovery Act, you’d find that most thought it was a waste. But component parts of the bill like expanded unemployment benefits, health insurance, infrastructure, rail, and tax cuts polled in the 60-80+ percent approval range.
Then there were all those Republican governors and members of Congress who opposed the Recovery Act and inveighed against Keynesian stimulus, while quietly seeking stimulus checks for their districts. Rep Paul Ryan—a particularly high profile case right now—provides a good example, but so do Eric Cantor, Michelle Bachmann, and Gov Rick Perry.
And, of course, as we speak, Republicans who supported the budget process that’s now led to $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the next decade are fighting hard to rescind at least the defense cuts. Gov. Romney attacks President Obama for not taking on the budget challenge posed by entitlements, yet now claims he’ll reverse the $700 billion in Medicare savings in the Affordable Care Act.
The point is not simply that politicians are hypocritical about such things. In fact, there’s a timely nugget of insight to all this: the hyper-conservative, huge reductions in the role on government in the budgets of today’s conservative leaders are deeply unrealistic: neither the cutters nor the voters want to go there.
The House Republican budget, authored by Rep Ryan, eventually takes government spending outside of Social Security, health insurance programs, and interest on the debt down to less than 4% of GDP. That’s not going to happen. The CBO points out that “spending for defense alone has not been lower than 3% of GDP in any year [since World War II]” and yet, these politicians seek higher levels of defense spending in the future, along with trillions in tax cuts beyond those of George W. Bush.
Anyone can make wild, abstract claims about how radically they’re going to shrink the government and can even get broad support for it from the public. Anyone can write down numbers on a budget ledger that purports to get to ridiculously low spending levels, especially without specifying the cuts. Similarly, anyone can propose massive tax cuts to be offset by loophole closures to be named later.
Yet, despite their tenuous connection to reality, these positions pose real threats. First of all, when politicians talk about paying for lower tax rates by broadening the tax base, e.g., closing loopholes, be aware that in today’s no-new-taxes climate, we’re likely to get the lower rates without the broader base. In other words, larger deficits.
Second, the spending cuts that do get shoved through will fall on the most vulnerable with the least clout. Again, the Ryan/House budget gets 60% of it cuts from low-income programs, like food stamps and Medicaid, while preserving subsidies for oil companies, not to mention doubling down on the Bush tax cuts.
So instead of entertaining ourselves with fantasy budgets that neither their purveyors nor their constituents really support, let’s have a real debate about what the majority of us actually want from our government and how we plan to pay for it.