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More on Paul Ryan and Public Opinion (with Kent Conrad Thrown in)

- April 6, 2011

Let me amplify on “my post below”:https://themonkeycage.org/2011/04/what_paul_ryan_wants_vs_what_t.html, which notes that disjuncture between how Paul Ryan wants to cut the deficit and how Americans appear to want to cut the deficit. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I’ll do it by criticizing Kent Conrad. Here is Conrad, from “this NPR interview”:http://www.npr.org/2011/04/06/135168389/democratic-sen-conrad-on-long-term-budget-deal#UninformedAmericans:

bq. I think the biggest impediment to doing what has to be done is public opinion. If you poll the American people, they say they want to get the debt under control, they want to reduce the deficit. Then you start asking specific question about what might be done. They first of all say “well, don’t touch entitlements.” That’s 60% of federal spending. Next they say “don’t touch defense.” That’s another 20% Then they say “don’t touch the revenue side of the equation at all.” Even if it’s tax reform that lowers rates, they say “don’t do that.” The only thing that enjoys majority support among the American people in terms of spending cuts is to cut foreign aid. Foreign aid is less than 1% of the federal budget.

So this is right, up to a point. I’ve noted the same thing “here”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/06/do_americans_really_want_to_cu.html and “here”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/04/why_its_so_hard_to_cut_the_fed.html and “here”:https://themonkeycage.org/2011/02/americans_dont_really_want_to_.html.

But when you look at the more “deliberative” exercises I noted in my first post — ones in which Americans must try to cut the deficit by making adjustments to taxes and spending — Conrad is wrong. They will “touch defense” — by cutting it. They will touch entitlements — largely by adjusting the cap on the payroll tax so that the wealthy pay more into Social Security. They will touch the “revenue side” — largely by raising the income tax rate for the wealthy.

To be sure, neither exercise I linked to — from the NY Times and the America Speaks forums — is based on a representative sample of Americans. So take these results with a grain of salt. Moreover, my point is not that Ryan or Conrad is wrong and Americans are right. Public opinion is not always a reliable guide for policymaking. But to act as if Americans just want a free lunch is unfair.

The problem isn’t that Americans can’t reason their way to a balanced budget. The problem is that policymakers don’t like the way many Americans would do it.