On budget, Americans display the common sense politicians lack

A new survey shows how Americans would cut spending, increase taxes to balance budget

February 14, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

While President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans give tax cuts to millionaires and chop federal spending for the working poor and students, most Americans would vigorously reduce defense spending, raise income taxes on their fellow citizens making more than $100,000 a year and double the increase on those making $500,000.

Such are the main conclusions of one of the more interesting surveys we've seen on American attitudes. World Public Opinion, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, conducted the survey in October and December. This one was different because it involved what the designers call "public consultation." That is, they gave participants some facts, and then asked their opinions. (You can take the survey yourself by clicking here.)

Participants were presented with more than 30 major line items of the discretionary federal budget, with a description of each one, the amount budgeted and the projected deficit. They could then either increase or decrease each item as they saw fit to try to reduce the deficit. The survey was interactive, conducted online, among more than 2,000 participants across a wide spectrum of Americans.

President Obama's budget cuts taxes for the wealthiest households and allows defense spending to continue on an upward trajectory. But, when given the opportunity to deal with the federal budget, a majority of those who took part in the World Public Opinion survey did just the opposite. From the summary:

"On average, respondents made net spending cuts of $145.7 billion. The largest cuts included those to defense ($109.4 billion), intelligence ($13.1 billion), military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq ($12.8 billion) and the federal highway system ($4.6 billion) — all of which were cut by majorities."

To increase revenues, the majority of those in the survey opted for — here's a shocker — income tax increases. Again, from the summary:

"On average, respondents increased revenues by $291.6 billion. The largest portion was from income taxes. … Majorities increased taxes on incomes over $100,000 by five percent or more and increased them by 10 percent or more for incomes over $500,000."

Do you find that amazing — that common-sense Americans think taxes should actually be raised to help lower the deficit?

Wait, there's more.

"Majorities also made increases in corporate taxes and alcohol taxes as well as new sources of revenue, including a tax on sugary drinks, treating 'carried interest' income as ordinary income (also known as the hedge fund managers' tax), and charging a crisis fee to large banks. A plurality (49 percent) favored a tax on carbon dioxide emissions."

Here's another shocker: Nearly 8 in 10 thought estate taxes should go back to their 2009 levels, with an exemption of up to $3.5 million and the tax on estates of greater value at 45 percent. Only 15 percent of those in the survey agreed with the deal that President Obama worked out with his new Republican buddies in December — an exemption on estates of up to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples, and a rate of 35 percent on anything above those levels.

A majority also favored raising the maximum tax rate for capital gains and dividends back to the pre-Bush tax cut levels.

Looking ahead, the survey presented eight options for dealing with the Social Security shortfalls that occur as baby boomers retire. The answer wasn't to cut benefits. (In fact, many of the participants in the WPO survey thought benefits to low-income retirees should go up. What a bunch of socialists!) The answer for the majority was in raising the limit on wages subject to the payroll tax at least to $156,000 and increasing the retirement age at least to 68.

You can think what you like about this survey, but I find the methodology important and refreshing — an effort to determine public attitudes from a base of informed opinions. It's as if World Public Opinion is trying to counter what it discovered from another survey it took after November's election: strong evidence that voters, particularly those who watched Fox News daily, were "substantially misinformed" on many of the key issues of the day, from the results of the 2009 stimulus to global warming to President Obama's birthplace.

Based on the results of WPO's most recent "public consultation" survey, on the federal budget, I'd say those who think the American people are no longer represented in Washington are correct. Spending priorities and taxation policies are at odds with what the common-sense majority thinks.

I want my country back!

Follow Dan Rodricks on Twitter at and on Facebook. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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