Don’t Believe Anyone Touting Pain-Free Deficit Reduction

Posted April 12, 2010 at 5:13pm

When I ran the Marine Corps Marathon a number of years ago, three young men, who even though the race is run early in the morning clearly had been drinking for several hours, were perched at the start of the final turn and loudly exhorting the runners by shouting, “There is no pain.” I knew it wasn’t true: Every part of my body had been telling me just the opposite for the previous few miles. But it sounded good at that moment because, despite what my knees, ankles and legs were saying about the reality of the situation, it was what I wanted to hear.

[IMGCAP(1)]I couldn’t help but think about those shouts as I reviewed the results of a poll jointly published last week by the Economist and YouGov. The results of the questions on the federal budget made it clear that those responding wanted to hear the same thing those three men were inaccurately telling me, that is, that as far as reducing the deficit is concerned, there is — or will be — no pain.

For example, one question in the poll made it clear that reducing spending was the way an overwhelming percentage wanted the deficit reduced. Only 5 percent said they preferred taxes to be increased; 62 percent — almost two-thirds — said spending should be cut.

But three questions later it became very clear there was very little support for actually cutting spending. Of the 15 areas specifically mentioned, cuts in only one — foreign aid — was supported by a majority of the respondents. No other budget cut was even favored by 30 percent. Cuts in two of the biggest areas of federal spending — Social Security and Medicare — were supported by only 7 percent. Reductions in the next largest — national defense — was favored by only 22 percent. A not insignificant 12 percent said they favored no specific spending cuts at all.

The poll indicated quite clearly that there’s a great deal of general support for cutting spending but not for any specific reductions. In fact, supermajorities much larger than what’s needed to stop filibusters in the Senate were against making reductions in any area of federal spending except for foreign aid, which just happens to be the smallest by far of the 15 parts of the federal budget on which people were asked to comment. Even eliminating that completely would have no appreciable impact on the federal government’s bottom line.

What made the poll results even more impressive is that people weren’t asked to just pick one area where spending should be reduced; they were told to “check all that apply.” When given the opportunity to specify areas of the budget to cut, supermajorities chose to protect them all.

In other words, when it comes to reducing the federal deficit, those responding to the poll, which supposedly was a representative sample of the general population of the U.S., wanted what the three men at the Marine Corp Marathon promised me as I ran past them: no pain.

To be honest, very little about this is new. Polls have been showing for years or even decades that, in general, reducing spending is the preferred way to deal with the deficit but that, with the exception of foreign aid, specific cuts seldom, if ever, garner anything close to the same level of support. This is why what is now a standard budget catchphrase — eliminating “waste, fraud and abuse” — is always so popular: Few ever specify what spending is actually wasteful, fraudulent and abusive. Instead, they do the budget equivalent of what those three men were doing.

That’s as much nonsense for the country fiscally as it was for me physically. Just as I hurt during and after running the marathon (trust me when I say that getting out of bed the next day was no fun), despite what some are saying and most of us may want to hear, reducing the deficit in the years ahead is not going to be painless. When the federal spending on wars, economic stimuli and bailouts has ended, and after revenues have climbed back to something close to their historical average as the economy recovers fully, there will still be a baseline deficit of about $1 trillion. That can’t be handled without significant spending and tax changes that, no matter how much we wish it might be otherwise, definitely will be felt.

The biggest question now is not about the numbers because there’s actually little disagreement about the magnitude of what needs to be done. The real issue is, when will policymakers begin to tell voters what they may know but don’t want to hear as far as the deficit? Does anyone think that $1 trillion in spending — about a third of the current total of federal spending — can be cut without them feeling it personally or without the government doing less of something they want it to continue to do? Do they believe that revenues won’t be part of the equation if they insist that Social Security, Medicare and military spending be taken off the table?

In other words, does anyone really imagine that they won’t have trouble getting out of bed the next morning even though they’d been told for so many years that reducing the deficit won’t hurt a bit?

Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and founder of
the blog Capital Gains and Games. He is also the author of “The
Guide to the Federal Budget.”