Public Opinion and the Deficit

David Leonhardt explains the confused public:

The new Times/CBS News poll highlights the problem, by asking more specific questions about taxes and spending than many previous polls have. (See questions 33 through 45 here.) Not surprisingly, when given a straight-up choice between broad spending cuts and tax increases, Americans say they would prefer to reduce the deficit mostly through less spending. It’s not even close: 62 percent for spending cuts, 29 percent for tax increases.

A few questions later, though, our pollsters offered a different choice. Would people rather eliminate Medicare’s shortfall through reduced Medicare benefits or higher taxes?

The percentages then switch, becoming nearly a mirror image of what they had been. Some 64 percent of respondents preferred tax increases, while 24 percent chose Medicare cuts. The same is true of Social Security: 63 percent for higher taxes, 25 percent for reduced benefits.

What I think we ultimately need to see is Universal Medicare rather than Medicare for old people only. But it would be Medicare operating under a global budget and with a dedicated source of tax revenue. People won’t be happy with the rationing that results from the global budget, but they also won’t be happy with the idea of raising the tax rate, and the balance between the two will be a very reasonable thing for political parties to argue about. Personally, I’d favor focusing on catastrophic coverage and preventive services, while leaving routine care up to individuals, but reasonable people will disagree about exactly how many social resources should be devoted to health care overall. Currently, though, the public debate is distorted by widespread misunderstanding of what’s happening (Jeb Hensarling doesn’t help) and by the sharp divergence in how we treat people above and below the age of 65.