Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Follow the Money

One of my Facebook friends, a fellow blogger, posted a link today to this article from the Fiscal Times, "Why Taxpayers Are So Angry and So Wrong About Spending." The author, Mark Thoma, begins:
Republicans, emboldened by public support for spending cuts, have taken the country to the brink of default as they fight to dial back government programs and vehemently oppose any tax increases to attack the deficit. But is the fight over the debt ceiling really an ideological battle between the two parties over the size and role of government? Or is a lot of the public support for GOP positions driven by myopia about entitlement spending and misplaced public anger?
I immediately wondered about this. From what I've seen, polls show that most Americans vehemently support tax increases (for the rich, anyway), and do not support the Republican / Obama program of cutting government programs that help ordinary Americans. So I clicked through that first link, which took me to a Gallup Poll report on the debt ceiling, which not only didn't mention tax increases but explained, "The question wording did not mention the rationales for or against raising the debt ceiling, nor did it explain that any such move would ultimately be a part of a broader budget bill involving spending cuts and perhaps tax increases."

Next I did some digging to see what polling on taxes showed. This FAIR blog post pointed out that in the political mainstream, "raising taxes on the wealthy is considered a non-starter--even though most Americans would support it." As evidence, two links: one to a Reuters poll which found that 12% of respondents favored tax increases to reduce the deficit, and 56% favored a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, for a total of 68% who were willing to increase taxes, with only 19% favoring only spending cuts. A Pew poll came up with exactly the same numbers.

The second link was to a Bloomberg article which begins:
Americans want Congress to bring down a federal budget deficit that many believe is “dangerously out of control,” only under two conditions: minimize the pain and make the rich pay.

That aversion to sacrifice is at odds with a spate of recent studies, including one by President Barack Obama’s debt panel, that say reductions in Medicare, Social Security, military and other spending are necessary to curb a deficit that totaled $1.29 trillion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, or 9 percent of the gross domestic product.
Of course that debt panel was packed with men whose biases toward cutting social programs was well-documented before they began their "study."

The article goes on to cite polling data and interviews. Some of the poll results are surprising at first glance, but maybe not so much when you think about it. It turns out that it's at best a half-truth even to say that "Republicans ... vehemently oppose tax increases to attack the deficit." For example,

While Republican congressional leaders have opposed increases in taxes paid by high-income families, sentiment among the party’s rank and file is mixed. Republicans are divided on eliminating the tax cuts for the wealthy, with 50 percent opposing and 47 percent supporting. An increase in the cap on earnings subject to Social Security taxes splits Republicans almost evenly.

The poll shows there’s little appetite across all parties and demographic groups for changes to entitlements.

Eighty-two percent of respondents opposed benefit cuts to the Medicare health-insurance system for the elderly, with about half of Republicans wanting to see both the current Medicare and Social Security systems preserved. Just 35 percent of all respondents back a system in which government vouchers would help people pay for their own health insurance.

“Nobody wants to fail to take care of children who need medicine or the elderly,” said Tea Party supporter Randy Thorman, 45, a high school social studies teacher in Pryor, Oklahoma. “We don’t want to throw people out without some type of help.”...

Cathy Freeman, a 64-year-old Republican and retired bookkeeper from Waco, Texas, said the deficit should be addressed by ending tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, not slashing the entitlement programs her family relies on.

“We need to look at that before you start hurting the little guys,” Freeman said. “Let’s look at some things that aren’t fair in our system.”

A majority of 72 percent also opposes reducing benefits for the Medicaid health program for the poor. This is true even of Tea Party supporters who have built a movement around smaller government, with 66 percent against reducing Medicaid benefits. Seventy-two percent of those earning $100,000 or more also are opposed.

And so on. I should mention that Thoma's article turned out not to be quite as bad as I thought: he favors social spending and professes himself disappointed by Obama's failure to be the progressive Thoma had hoped for when he was elected. The trouble is that Thoma has bought into the corporate media line that most Americans support the Republican program. A much more accurate headline would be something like "Why Republican and Media Elites Are So Angry and So Wrong About Spending." But that wouldn't be news, I guess.