02/22/2011 12:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear Washington DC: The Public Is Smarter About Money (and Deficits) Than You Are

Some condescending politicians and pundits never miss an opportunity to talk down to the American people, especially when it comes to budgets. The members of Washington's political "center" encounter one another at social events, often in pleasant halls where the chill of winter is kept at bay by the warmth of oak paneling. There they cluck-cluck to one another about the foolishness of their constituents and readers, to the accompaniment of that tiny cracking sound ice makes at the first touch of warm scotch. As soft-spoken waiters serve hors d'oeuvres, they share a chuckle over polls showing that voters want to 'reduce deficits' but don't want to cut any government programs.

Voters. They're like children. We'll have to make the tough decisions for them. They'll thank us someday. After all, they don't know how to balance a budget.

They may really believe that -- but nothing could be further from the truth. Polls have shown that the public has a much better idea how to manage the government's money than leaders from either party do -- and that includes knowing how to cut the deficit. The real problem isn't that the public can't manage money. The real problem is that nobody's speaking for the public in Washington. Which raises the question: Who are they speaking for?

Smarter budgets, smaller deficits

The Republican Party is very, very proud of its plan to cut $60 billion in discretionary spending from this year's budget. But $60 billion is child's play compared to what the public's willing to embrace. A recent PPP poll showed that majorities of those polled would cut double that amount -- and that's just from the defense budget! ($109.4 billion from the overall Pentagon budget, plus $12.8 billion from Iraq and Afghanistan.) They would also cut more than $13 billion from our bloated and poorly targeted intelligence budget, along with a variety of other reductions that add up to more than $145 billion in spending reductions each year.

Know what else they would do a lot more of? Raise taxes. They would support nearly $300 billion in new taxes, for an annual deficit reduction of $437 billion. That's more than seven times what the Republicans were able to do -- and without slashing needed social programs doing some of the other crazy things the Republicans would do. They'd cut law enforcement funding, from the FBI down to state and local levels, and programs to predict hurricanes. They're also hard at work cutting funds for last year's mild financial reforms, which could conceivably help prevent the next multi-trillion dollar meltdown.

Give people good information and you'll get good answers.

The PPP study didn't do what many of these polls do, which is feed people slanted questions and then get predictable slanted answers. As the pollsters explained, they simply "presented 31 of the major line items of the discretionary federal budget with a description of each one, the amount budgeted for 2015, and the projected deficit. (Respondents) were then given a chance to increase or decrease each item as they saw fit and to try to reduce the deficit."

The PPP respondents didn't find it necessary to cut heating oil for poor people in the winter, as the President just proposed, or to do anything else brutal in order to prove that they were "serious" about deficit control. (Liberals are expected to slash beloved programs to prove their bona fides, the way a mafioso might have to kill a teenager to become a "made man." That's one of the Washington conventions the President seems unwilling to challenge.)

They didn't find it necessary to raise the cost of student loans, either, something the White House was busy doing even as the president spoke his stirring words about the importance of affordable education if we're to "win the future." Young people already face the most jobless, hopeless future they've had to contend with in a long time (as Marian Wright Edelman details). Perhaps the White House decided: What's a little more debt on top of that?

When it came to Social Security -- which doesn't contribute to the deficit -- "options that were chosen by large majorities were to raise the limit on wages subject to the payroll tax to at least $156,000 and to increase the retirement age to at least 68" (emphasis mine). Since the retirement age is already being increased, this finding confirms what many previous polls have said: The public doesn't want to cut Social Security benefits. It also confirms that the public has better judgment than Washington insiders, since lifting the payroll tax limit would pretty much fix any long term problem with the program.

Public vs. Politicos -- Folks vs. 'The Freeze"

Pundits and pols had conniptions over a recent Pew poll which showed that 49% of respondents thought that cutting the deficit was more important than spending to stimulate the economy, but when asked about specific programs those numbers fell apart. See? they told each other. They're not serious about reducing the deficit. Yet the PPP poll shows the exact opposite: Give them the details and they'll make very smart decisions.

The PPP respondents' approach was much smarter than the president's five year "spending freeze," which swings a meat cleaver at all government programs. The Senate Democrats just signed on to this approach, which cuts some highly needed (and very popular) programs in order to save what they estimate will be $400 billion over a decade. The public saved more than that in a year, and in a way that keeps government functioning effectively (without shafting either government workers, the needy, or anybody else in the general public).

These Democrats could save $40 billion a year, or ten percent of what the freeze accomplishes, just by ending tax subsidies for oil companies. That would make economic sense -- and it would be popular, too. But apparently it wasn't on their to-do list.

Content and clichés

So what happened with the Pew poll? When asked a question that was merely a vague generality, respondents repeated the clichés about government expenditure they hear from politicians and pundits every day. But when asked about specifics, they had a different (and much more realistic) sense of priorities. That's not a condemnation of the public. It's a condemnation of the pundits and politicians who pelt them with platitudes instead of giving them the information they need to participate in our democracy.

The center cannot hold

To the extent that it still is a democracy, that is. Social Security, Congressional priorities, job creation, antipoverty efforts: on issue after issue pollsters have found that citizens across the political spectrum have strongly-held views that aren't being presented by prominent figures in either party inside the beltway.1 Instead, the Washington debate is being driven by an artificial consensus that's well outside the mainstream for the country as a whole, and which was manufactured in corporate think tanks and by highly-financed propaganda operations. And what do they call this artificial set of views, so far out of sync with the public's wishes and desires?

They call it "the center." Pundits like Fred Hiatt somehow still manage to invoke words like "bipartisan" when invoking the Simpson/Bowles deficit proposal whose ideas are soundly rejected by voters in both parties (and by 76% of Tea Party supporters). Come to think of it, that is bipartisan, if not in the way Mr. Hiatt would wish. And he managed to invoke the "hard choices" mantra that's inevitably used to describe the sacrifices imposed upon others in order to win campaign contributions and good media jobs today, along with treasured think tank positions and other sinecures in the future.

The frenemies within

And sure enough, a "bipartisan" team of Senators is riding to the rescue by trying to force the Simpson/Bowles proposals through that body. The team is disproportionately made up of Senators from small states where a Senatorial seat can be purchased with far less spending on campaign contributions, making them cost-effective allies in this world of unlimited corporate political spending. They are: Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.).

The Wall Street Journal reported on a closed-door meeting where Senate Democratic leaders, responding reasonably to both sound policy and the public's will, tried to remove Social Security from upcoming budget negotiations but were sandbagged by this so-called "gang of six." Adds the Journal: "President Barack Obama attended, although his contribution to the conversation couldn't be learned."

"The President's contribution to the conversation couldn't be learned." There's a lot of that going around nowadays. It's a shame. The president could be leading the national debate on this subject. Instead he's buying into right-wing framing of the debate and using inept gestures like the heating-oil cut and the spending freeze to portray himself as a "kinder, gentler" budget slasher. In the end, his approach is every bit as condescending as that of the pols and pundits who distort facts, mislead the public, and then present themselves as the representatives of a mythical center.

While the President talks about "winning the future," they're spinning the future -- and winning everything.


Why is the public so much smarter with budgets than our leaders in Washington? It helps that normal people don't have to ask for campaign contributions, and that they haven't marinated in a sauce of think tank-fueled truisms for a couple of decades. Maybe they make good decisions so often because they still have to balance their own checkbooks. Whatever the reasons, it turns out that the real "center," not the Washington version, can make some very sound decisions when given the right information.

It's time for people inside the Beltway to stop talking to the public and start listening. That used to be a skill that both politicians and journalists were encouraged to develop. In fact, it used to be a job requirement.

1. More on the public opinions not represented inside the Beltway:

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""