People Favor Higher Taxes And Maintaining High Levels Of Spending On Major Programs

Corey Robin has a historically informed piece in the London Review of Books that manages to overthink the American public’s aversion to taxes and spending:

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.

Compare to the actual structure of public opinion:

Recall that Barack Obama didn’t negotiate his debt ceiling deal with the American voting public. He didn’t even negotiate it with the median member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He negotiated it, primarily, with John Boehner acting as leader of a party cartel that controlled the House. The cartel in question is deeply committed to avoiding tax increases, so a deal was struck that avoided tax increases. But the public’s resistance to higher taxes doesn’t require explanation — there’s nothing to explain.

Survey data tends to support Robin’s observation elsewhere in the piece that most people seem unenthusiastic about “the state” because they don’t perceive it to be doing much to deliver services for them. But as we see here in the poll, programs that people do perceive as benefiting them — like Social Security and Medicare — are very popular. These are also, in fact, the two largest federal domestic programs. So again, on the issues, I don’t think there’s anything mysterious happening here. If we held a referendum purely on the question of tax hikes and entitlement spending, we’d get some very left-wing answers. The American political system just doesn’t operate that way.