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On Budget Cuts, the Political Gap Is Informational, Not Ideological

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The Exchange

By Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

The Washington political crowd often claims that political gridlock is the result of ideological extremes dominating the two major political parties. For the Democrats, spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is sacrosanct. For the Republicans tax increases are strictly verboten. With one side refusing to accept spending cuts and the other side refusing to accept tax increases, deficit reduction is impossible.

That’s a cute story with which to fill news articles and opinion pieces, but it is almost completely wrong – and not just because it exaggerates the need for deficit reduction. While it is absolutely true that the vast majority of Democrats strongly oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, so do the vast majority of Republicans, including self-identified supporters of the Tea Party.

This is not a debatable point. Poll after poll consistently shows that huge majorities across the political spectrum strongly support these programs and do not want to see them cut. While the support is somewhat lower among more conservative voters, any politician would be delighted to enjoy the same approval rating with potential voters as Social Security enjoys among Tea Party conservatives. This one is not a close call, even the most conservative voters are huge supporters of the big three social programs.

Shared Sacrifices

If Republicans and conservatives support Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid then what exactly do they want to see cut? These programs, together with interest and defense spending, which most Republicans also do not want cut, amount to more than two thirds of the entire federal budget.

The remaining third includes some odds and ends that conservatives may want to cut, but most of it consists of items like Veterans Benefits, medical research, and education funding, all of which also generally enjoy support across the political spectrum. Furthermore, these categories of spending have already been squeezed by prior agreements President Obama and Congress.

What Are We Actually Paying For?

As a practical matter, most conservatives actually approve of the vast majority of federal spending. The problem is that they don’t realize that most of the federal budget is actually spent on programs they support. They have been led to believe by conservative politicians that there are vast areas of the federal budget devoted to fraudulent or ridiculous spending programs.

This is perhaps best typified by the $1 million Woodstock Museum, which served as a major prop for John McCain’s 2008 presidential race. To most of us $1 million is a lot of money. However for the federal government $1 million is inconsequential. It amounts to less than 0.00003 percent of all federal spending. If Congress were devote 1 minute of debate for every Woodstock Museum sized expenditure (i.e. 1 minute of debate for every million dollars spent on a program), and stayed in session 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, then it would get through debating the 2013 budget some time in 2020.

Whether or not the $1 million grant for the Woodstock Museum was a good use of public money, it simply was too small to be of much consequence. The media’s response to McCain’s making this sort of expenditure the centerpiece of his campaign should have been ridicule. The Woodstock Museum and other comparable items most certainly are not where the money is. Yet instead of ridiculing McCain, the media lionized him. He was routinely praised for his courage and regularly feted in public forums for standing above narrow partisanship to serve the greater good.

This treatment of McCain and other “deficit fighters” who focus on trivial items in the budget has helped to encourage the belief that spending is driven by quirky projects of questionable value – instead of the social insurance programs that enjoy overwhelming support. This misunderstanding creates a fundamentally different problem from the seemingly irreconcilable ideological conflict hyped by the Washington media.

It's Time to Change the Discussion

The problem is not finding a way to somehow bridge an unbridgeable ideological divide. The main problem is that much of the Washington elite is pushing for cuts in the core social safety net programs that the bases of both parties strongly oppose. They will get no support for their agenda from the Democratic Party’s base and can only count on support from the Republican base insofar as the discussion is about reducing generic “spending.” As soon as the Republican base realizes that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are in the crosshairs, they will be almost as strongly opposed as the Democrats.

That is the predicament in which the Washington elites find themselves. They have an agenda that the vast majority of the people in this democracy strongly oppose. Their only hope is to conceal it in ideological smoke and mirrors.

Dean Baker is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He has written extensively on a wide range of topics, including the housing bubble. His most recent book is The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive (free download available here).