Why We Want to Keep Spending and Cut the Deficit

BY Paul Solman  February 28, 2013 at 1:42 PM EST

How can Americans want to maintain or increase spending on almost every line item in the budget (except foreign aid) and yet insist we need to cut the yearly deficit and cumulative debt?


Paul Solman: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to keep two opposed thoughts in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So goes the motto of a course I help teach, courtesy of novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. And if Fitzgerald was right, and new polls on “the sequester” are accurate, then Americans are about as intelligent as a people can get. Witness the following new evidence of “opposed thoughts.”

As Pew summarized in a report released Feb. 22, “For 18 of 19 programs tested, majorities want either to increase spending or maintain it at current levels. The only exception is assistance for needy people around the world.”

Op-ed columnist Charles Blow referenced the findings of the Pew report in last Saturday’s New York Times. In the article, he called on Congress to stop the sequester before it happens and avert the “dire consequences” of automatic spending cuts.

On the competing op-ed page of the same day’s Wall Street Journal, pollster Scott Rasmussen was quoted sayingjust 36 percent of voters want Congress and the president to stop the automatic cuts.”

So which is it? Do the American people want to preserve spending or slash it? I’m reminded of something the ultra-liberal Barney Frank told me not long after he became a Congressman. If I remember correctly, some friends and I were teasing him about those darlings of the New Left ’70s, “the people.” Frank was asked what it was like to represent them.

“The people?” he said, in his Elizabeth, N.J., accent, with words pretty close to these: “The people are no bargain. They want all of government’s programs. They just don’t want to pay for them.”

That was in the 1980s. Three decades later, our thoughts remain unfixed. But apparently, that’s just how human beings are made.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.