WASHINGTON -- If the public actually set the public agenda, we'd be cutting the deficit much differently than either the Democrats or the Republicans are proposing to do it.
That's according to a comparison of President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, the cuts for the remainder of fiscal 2011 proposed by House Republicans, and the results of an ingenious study of public opinion where a representative sample of Americans, asked how they would reduce their deficit, were presented with actual budget numbers and worked their way through a series of tradeoffs. (Try it yourself.)
While the details vary, the White House and Republican leaders both basically want to reduce the deficit by cutting social programs, preserving defense spending and raising taxes relatively little or not at all.
The public, by contrast, would do it primarily by cutting defense spending and imposing significantly higher and more progressive taxes on the rich -- while at the same time dramatically increasing spending in such areas as job training, higher education and humanitarian aid.
In other words, the public takes a considerably more humane view of spending than either party, is considerably less beholden to the military-industrial complex, and doesn't seem to care if the super-rich get a bit offended.
The study was the combined effort of a think tank, the Program for Public Consultation, and the polling firm Knowledge Networks. They presented an elaborate questionnaire to more than 2,000 respondents.
Given the goal of cutting the deficit, the average Americans did the job -- cutting it way more deeply, in fact, than either the Democratic or Republican proposals call for.
Ironically, the political subgroup that did the worst job was the slice of respondents who identified themselves as Tea Party sympathizers. They were the least likely to raise taxes and also the least likely, when faced with actual programs, to make cuts.
The next worst were Republicans, then Democrats.
Independents raised taxes more than Republicans (over $300 billion) and cut spending more than Democrats (nearly $200 billion), ultimately reducing the deficit by a whopping half a trillion dollars.
A major flaw with the study, however, was that it wasn't able to engage respondents in the biggest deficit-related challenge by far: slowing the increase in health spending.
But that can't be done simply by setting targets. That requires doing such things as cutting profit margins for Big Pharma, or reducing payments to specialists, or limiting insurance company profits or changing the incentives that make too many doctors treat patients like ATMs.
That's too complicated to present in terms of simple formulas.
In this study, the single biggest difference between the public and the current crop of elected officials came in the area of defense spending. At an event marking the rollout of the new comparison on Thursday, Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation, said many respondents were shocked to find out just how big the defense budget really is. (Imagine if they saw it calculated this way.)
They responded by cutting defense spending by an average of 18 percent, or about $109 billion per year. That's compared to the 4 percent increase being proposed by Obama and the 2 percent increase being proposed by House Republicans.
The respondents also called for $292 billion more in taxes, much of it coming from the rich -- about three times as much as Obama has proposed, and a far cry from the no-new-taxes mantra of the GOP.
What explains this huge gulf between what members of the the public see as common sense and what their democratically-elected representatives impose on them?
A lot of it can be explained by money. It's not a coincidence that elected officials support more defense spending, given the size and influence of the military-industrial lobby. Nor is it surprising that they are wary of increasing taxes on the people who pay for their campaigns.
By contrast, most of the things the public wants to spend more on -- job training, education, humanitarian aid, energy conservation and pollution control among them -- don't have wealthy corporate constituencies.
Kull had a somewhat more nuanced view of why the public seems to be able to solve problems, at least on paper, that officials are unable to.
"The political process involves leaders making commitments to groups," Kull said. Those groups help them get funding for their campaigns, and in the process, the elected officials "become very chrystalized, very committed to those positions," he said. These positions collide and compete in the legislative process, and what emerges is not the result of one comprehensive approach, but the result of many little battles.
"The average person is able to look at the problem in a holistic way," he said. "They are not committed to any position."
And while the superficial, emotional response is for people to say they are against either tax increases or budget cuts, when push comes to shove, they can see the need for both, said Robert Bixby, executive director of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition.
"When you do drill down and go beyond the surface reaction, the public is actually a great deal more rational that the polls give them credit for, and perhaps even more than politicians give them credit for," Bixby said.
Of course, if nobody listens, then it doesn't do any good.
"What's important is that this kind of information is communicated into the political discourse," Kull said. That way the image of the public's shallow, abstract responses -- against raising taxes, for instance -- isn't the governing one.
"Because there is another image of the public," Kull said, "which is how they respond in the intelligent, rational sense."