What Does “Waste” Mean to Voters?

A new poll (PDF) is being widely cited as evidence of public misconceptions about the federal budget. For example:

There are widespread misperceptions about the state of the federal budget. A majority of voters incorrectly believes the federal government spends more on defense/foreign aid than it does on Medicare and Social Security (63%). Also, a similar majority (60%) incorrectly believes problems with the federal budget can be fixed by just eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Voters do not casually agree with these untruths—at least 40% strongly agree. Further, less than half (44%) believe Medicare and Social Security costs are a major source of problems for the federal budget (49% disagree).

Obviously, this is mistaken. For Social Security to pay promised benefits will require a small increase in Social Security taxes. For Medicare to pay promised benefits is essentially impossible absent a radical change in the cost structure of American health care. And for the Social Security Trust Fund debt to be fully repaid will require either substantial new taxes or substantial cutbacks in “discretionary” spending. But what about the waste? Everyone in Washington knows this is BS and there’s actually very little money to be found in waste fraud and abuse.

But the public disagrees:

The waste in government is a strong concern to voters – again 60% believe fixing the waste will solve the nation’s budget problems, and voters say that a mean of 42% of each federal dollar is wasted.

I think the best way to understand this is probably with a principle of generous interpretation. A liberal might say “I don’t see why we’re wasting all this money in Afghanistan.” That’s not to say that all the money being spent is “waste.” It’s mostly paying salaries and benefits to soldiers and their dependents, it’s hiring contractors to do real work, it’s buying bullets and robots and chocolate milk and TGI Friday’s. That’s not “waste” in a budgetspeak sense. But you still might say that the money is wasted on an activity with little value.

The problem here is that one man’s waste is another man’s vital public service. I think the federal governments wastes too much money subsidizing rural lifestyles. I imagine that Senators from Kansas will disagree. They probably think the government should stop wasting money on mass transit. The evidence is clear that a lot of Medicare spending is wasteful in the sense that it does little to produce good health outcomes, but if you ask the congressman in whose district some high-cost low-utility device is made in, he’s not going to see it that way.