Fiscal NIMBYism

3/2 – see update at bottom*

Pew Research is out with another poll, this time focused on budgetary and financial issues, given the upcoming sequester, and the results are depressingly predictable. The title alone gives away the findings almost completely: As Sequester Deadline Looms, Little Support for Cutting Most Programs (pdf). The key graph is here:

graphic of poll results
Spending Cuts? Not In MY Backyard!

This is the quandary American politics – no, American policymaking – has found itself in for at least a couple of decades now. We on the left like to chuckle when Republican lawmakers are caught live on air being unable to name any specific projects they’d cut, but one can hardly blame the politicos. Their main job, in our money-driven political system, is to know what it takes to get re-elected. It takes money and it takes votes, in that order. Without money, you can’t attract enough votes, but – as people like Meg Whitman and Mitt Romney prove – without enough support from ordinary voters, no amount of money will get you elected.

What you’re seeing when you see a GOP politician caught stammering on TV, bereft of any answer at all to the question of which specific cuts to which specific programs they’d make is what happens when the interests of those two groups – the high-dollar funders and the voters who have to pull the actual levers to get the politicians elected – collide. It doesn’t happen often; usually the two groups interests are at least not in opposition, if not actually simpatico.

Even in the case of spending cuts, those groups’ interests seem at first to be at least superficially aligned. Starting in the early 1970s, forty-plus years of concerted faux-populist anti-tax rhetoric from a well-funded right wing determined to rise above the nearly permanent minority status it had enjoyed since the Great Depression have rendered the average American conservative certain that cuts must be made because spending is out of control and taxes are too damn high.

Yet ask these same Americans which particular programs they’d like to cut, as Pew did – and by how much, and the graph above shows what happens when well-funded, agenda-driven political propaganda collides with people’s own self-interest. I’m actually strangely heartened by the fact that not even most Republicans, apparently, feel like it’s a good idea to start cutting the benefits they or their loved ones or friends receive. Why? Because, to a greater or lesser degree, they know these programs work. They help pay medical bills and drug costs. They make the food budget go a little farther every month. They keep the bridges safe and the children well-educated. They do lots of things that are vital to the communities in which these poll respondents live. These things are called entitlements because voters – even Republican voters, apparently – feel entitled to them. These things are part of the social contract, what each of us is told our tax money goes to, what we agree to provide for ourselves and each other through the medium of government. Our civilization, in other words. And yes, even most GOP voters feel entitled to these things we’ve agreed upon.

That’s why, when you ask even most Republicans to really think about applying the rhetoric being discussed on their televisions by the pundits and the politicians to their OWN lives – when you ask them to think specifically about which programs they, the voters themselves, would cut, support drops away like support for Larry Craig dropped away among Senate Republicans after the “wide stance” issue.

I call this Fiscal NIMBYism because it represents the direct collision of those forty-plus years of well-funded GOP rhetoric about lower taxes and cutting spending and drowning government in a bathtub with the actual reality of what the lower spending parts mean. These same GOP voters who balk at naming any specific cuts they’d be willing to make were only too eager to accept the lower tax lollipop portion of the GOP rhetoric. They took the Bush tax cuts without hesitation, spent or saved it, and never looked back. It’s only when those same GOP agenda-setters come back to them and say “OK, now it’s time for the spending cuts” that people begin to say “hey, wait a minute…” when they begin to really think about what that’s going to mean in practice. A large deficit sounds bad in the abstract, but the scariness of an outsized debt-to-GDP ratio that Politician X is discussing on TV pales in comparison to the serious consideration of cutting one’s own benefits to bring that deficit down.

That’s why the only item on Pew’s list of potential funding cuts that even reached plurality support was cutting  aid to the world’s needy. That’s the perfect expression of the ambivalence and NIMBYism I’m referring to: cut someone ELSE’S benefits, but keep your stinkin’ government hands off my Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security/school funding/veteran’s benefits/etc…

To be fair, even cutting aid to the world’s needy didn’t reach actual majority support, probably because enough people realized just how heartless that sounded, as they checked the “don’t cut” box on all their own pet projects. All this may sound like a call for despair, that GOP or perhaps even just regular rank-and-file voters are too hopelessly selfish for redemption of any kind, but I see it as just the opposite. I think the fact that even most GOP voters can still at least recognize what their own self-interest is, is an unqualified good. It means they’re not completely delusional. It means that despite forty-plus years of Ayn Randian “you’re on your own” rhetoric and Reaganite “government IS the problem” rhetoric, not even most Republicans think government is so worthless that they’d be willing to throw away what it provides for them.

And that means there’s a potential wedge there for Democrats to break the lockstep voting of ordinary Republicans for austerity, against their own self-interest.

***UPDATE***

I just got an email from a group whose mailing list I’m on, Operation Homefront. You may already know them; they’re one of the higher-profile groups that provides assistance to military families, especially (but not exclusively) the deployed. They’re a great group doing work that shouldn’t be left to outside organizations but instead should be a part of what our nation guarantees to those men and women who put their lives at risk to defend our country. Nevertheless, due to already-existing shortages in everything from VA benefits to simple cash-flow issues, groups like Operation Homefront have to exist, and they do vital work very well.

This email is titled “Sequestration and Our Military Families,” and the reason I’m mentioning it is not because – or not only because – it’s an example of how the recent failure of congress to act to avoid the blunt instrument of the sequester affects real people in the real economy. The email is certainly that, but it’s also an example of what I just got done talking about in this post: fiscal NIMBYism. The author, OH’s President & CEO Jim Knotts, begins by talking about what sequestration is and how it will negatively affect military families, but then in paragraph four, he gets around to this:

Personally, I fully understand and even support the notion that we need to cut our federal budget to get our national fiscal house in order. What you may not know is that the Department of Defense will bear more than 20% of the total budget cuts under sequestration.

[…]

Many military spouses have jobs as DoD civilians at local installations, which means the budgets of many military families just got a significant cut. Programs on the installations that support families and kids will be cut or curtailed due to staffing gaps. Schools for military kids on the installations have to figure out how they’ll complete the school year.

Knotts goes on to detail numerous other ways in which sequestration’s cutbacks will impact military families, none of which I’m trying to brush aside or take lightly by pointing this out. But it’s a bit of a nutshell summary of the ridiculousness of federal policy as well as current conventional wisdom that even a man in the position Knotts is in, who knows better than most just what kinds of harm funding cuts at this time will do in real terms still believes and agrees with the notion that we need to make cuts.

He’d just prefer they not be in HIS backyard, if at all possible.

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