Voters want less debt, but when?
Citing exit polls conducted during the Nov. 2 election, some critics of the belt-tightening plan released last week by the co-chairmen of the White House deficit commission argued that the public wasn't really interested in deficit reduction. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation begs to differ.
On Tuesday, the foundation -- supplier of the coveted "genius grants," among other civic-minded handouts -- announced that an online poll of 1,200 Americans found that more than 70% said it was "very important" and 24% said it was "somewhat important" that Congress reduce the national debt. Those in the "very important" category include "large majorities of both genders and across all political affiliations, all races, all regions of the country, and all income levels," the foundation said.
The survey sample, which included only people who voted in the midterm elections, mirrored the overall voting public in those contests -- 50% backed Republicans for Congress and 44% backed Democrats. The group skewed toward the GOP when it came to picking a solution to the debt problem: 60% said they wanted to cut spending only, while 35% said they favored spending cuts combined with tax hikes.
The pollsters evidently didn't ask one vital question: Should the deficit-cutting efforts start now, or wait until unemployment drops and the economy perks up? That's the issue that lawmakers are struggling with now, or at least they should be struggling with it. Lately they've been schizophrenic on the issue. Republicans are clamoring for a permanent extension of all the George W. Bush-era tax cuts without offsetting the 10-year cost of $4 trillion, yet many don't want to continue extending unemployment benefits unless they're fully paid for. Democrats, meanwhile, don't seem to care about busting the budget to continue most of the Bush-era cuts or extend unemployment benefits, but they get all deficit-hawkish when it comes to renewing the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year.
I still cling to Keynes' economic theories, so I think it would be a mistake for Congress to try to stem the tide of red ink this year. But it's also a mistake to consider every kind of spending or tax cut suitably stimulative. Unemployment benefits may be the most effective form of stimulus out there. Reducing the tax rates for individuals and businesses who are already sitting on huge amounts of cash? Not so much.
-- Jon Healey
Photo: An October 2008 photo of the National Debt Clock in New York City. Credit: Bebeto Matthews / Associated Press