Monday, June 21, 2010

Fiscal Responsibility

A couple of things which seem to be baffling the likes of Paul Krugman is, first, that politicians are talking about cutting spending balancing the budget in the face of a still-fragile economy and, second, that they are doing so despite public opinion that is overwhelmingly more worried about jobs than they are about the federal deficit.

Krugman is not the only one wondering about this, I’ve seen quite a lot of commentary regarding the second puzzle. People in these polls expressed little concern about the deficit, but the jobs issue is high in the polling, and yet government is suddenly talking about “financial responsibility” and these pundits cannot understand why. One California editor commented that since the primaries are now past, the rhetoric could swing from all of the “partisan cost cutting nonsense” and return to a focus on generating jobs. It has, of course, not done so.

The answer to that puzzle is that first, the poll asks about the federal deficit, and people truly do not care about the federal deficit. They care about trash collection, potholes in their streets, ballpark construction and clean beaches; they do not care about the deficit.

Taxes now, they care about taxes. They are against taxes, and that’s what all of this “financial responsibility” talk is about. Is there a connection between federal spending, taxes and the federal deficit? No, not in the mind of the average voter. Hell, in the mind of a significant number of voters there is not even a connection between federal spending and taxes.

California’s governance is almost entirely done by public initiative now; voters pass some 90% of spending initiatives, and they vote down 100% of tax initiatives. Those which are revenue neutral, ones which spend money but also raise a tax to provide the money to fund the project or charge fees for it, fail at about an 95% rate.

Americans want the government to provide services, protection and facilities, but they do not want to pay taxes. Voters may not be worried about the federal deficit, but they are worried about taxes. There is a constant clamor for increasing the provisions and decreasing taxes. That clamor is fed by the politicians of both parties, who endlessly promise in every campaign at every level to do precisely that.

No, the voters don’t want the budget balanced and they don’t care about the deficit. They do care about “fiscal responsibility,” though, when that phrase is used as code for “low taxes.” At this point the public does want the government to provide jobs, and health care, and unemployment benefits, and clean seas. They also want taxes reduced and lower gasoline cost. And free lunch; don’t forget the free lunch.

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