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Cutting defense spending more popular than cutting education or Social Security


The chart above comes from Annie Lowrey, and is the single best explanation of why it's so much easier to say you want to cut government spending than it is to actually cut it. The blue line reports the results of an Economist/YouGov poll asking people "If government spending is reduced in order to balance the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?" The red line is the percentage of the budget these programs actually account for.

The only program that more than a third of the public wants to see cut is foreign aid. Bummer, then, that it accounts for less than a single percent of the budget.

But the fact that people want a smaller budget deficit but no reductions in actual spending is old news, and well accounted for in Congress. What's interesting about this chart, however, is that a sizable minority of the population wants to cut defense spending. In fact, defense spending's size of the budget and the number of people who want to cut it match up much more closely than most of the other two bars on the graph.

You can make too much of this, of course. Only about a quarter of the population wants defense spending cut. But given how terrified politicians are to touch defense spending -- we even invented a category called "non-defense discretionary spending" in order to protect it -- maybe it's time to take another look. Washington may consider defense spending sacred, but the country doesn't -- at least not more than anything else.

Update: Switched out John Sides' graph for Annie Lowrey's, as Annie's was in color and a bit easier to read.

By Ezra Klein  |  April 8, 2010; 12:41 PM ET
Categories:  Budget , Charts and Graphs  
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How much defense spending could reasonably be considered foreign aid (e.g. because of humanitarian assistance, military assistance less than vital to national security, or the cleaning up of messes of our own making)?

Posted by: TheIncidentalEconomist | April 8, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

It's interesting that the category in the Obams budget that Wikipedia calls "welfare/unemployment spending," which is nearly as big as defense spending, is absent from these charts.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 8, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if anyone has ever divided the total spending on welfare by the number of welfare recipients and compared the result to the wages of the average worker. When the cost (subsidies paid plus administrative expenses) of the average non-worker exceeds the income of the average worker, some programs might need to be re-evaluated.

Posted by: rmgregory | April 8, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps so few people want to cut Social Security because it was originally envisioned as a program you were paying into for benefits to be granted later in some degree of reciprocity. And that is sort of the way it was in the first part of the Social Security Program's lifecycle - almost like a "lockbox"!

But it's part of the General Fund now, and it's in deep trouble. What the chart above does not show is that defense spending is what it is, but the bill for Social Security is going to be much worse as more Baby Boomers get to retirement age.

So which would you rather eliminate: fighting nasty wars or taking care of sweet old people?

For personal spending - fighting wars.

For government spending - taking care of old people.

Why - because the purpose for a government is to secure life, liberty and property; that is, the purpose of a government is protection. So wrote John Locke, and Tom Jefferson felt much the same.

The purpose for a government is not to fund retirements and medical care. That is for children, nephews, nieces, banks, insurance companies and investment firms to accomplish. And if these are not sufficient, then it remains for churches and charities to do.

Get rid of federal entitlement programs. All of them.

Posted by: MKS1 | April 8, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

From another angle this graph is entirely unsurprising: the things voters don't want to spend money on turn out to be the things we don't spend money on.

The interesting misconception is that the public thinks we can balance the budget by cutting the things they don't like, without realizing that those things are already tiny.

Posted by: claytex | April 8, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

Furthermore, Medicare, which is near the top of the no-cut list, is the program that is actually driving the vast majority of the projected future deficits going forward. This analysis simply underscores the fact that we need to look at controlling healthcare costs and raising tax revenues. I, too, would be opposed at this point to cutting Medicare's statutory benefits (which cover about 76% of retirees' medical expenses). But if people don't want to do that, then they need to accept that we need to control the growth of new medical technology, which is the primary driver of healthcare cost growth. You can't have it all.

Posted by: weiwentg | April 8, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

The universal popularity of peace is the aspect of populism most feared and hated by the corporate/ military establishment.

Posted by: harold3 | April 8, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Considering that the defense establishment cannot account for at least 2 trillion dollars at all, by some conservative estimates, perhaps it is beyond time that we found a way to account for that spending and start thinking more clearly about what we as a country intend to do wrt "defense" and what it means to defend the country. Getting the US into proxy wars fighting for our "strategic" imperatives in terms of fighting for oil and other resource access is a cost that should be borne more by the direct beneficiaries.
Likewise with domestic natural resources-are we getting fair market value for our federally owned oil, gas, coal, timber and minerals, or is it welfare writ large like the 1877 mining law, still in effect? How many other costs of industry are taxpayers subsidizing, especially in light of the fact that many corporations pay no taxes to the US?

Posted by: sparkplug1 | April 8, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree we should take another look at cutting defense spending, but I don't think the number in favor of cuts is helpful. If 22% are in favor of cuts, then 78% are opposed.

Bloated budgets by their nature create inefficiency. If the military is getting $500 billion+ a year(ex-war funding), it isn't going to worry about dropping $300 billion on 2,500 F-35s over the next 20 years. I have yet to see what justifies, at ~$100 million/copy, that many jets (which are basically bomb trucks). I'm not sure what plausible scenario can occur that would require 2,500 F-35s that 2,000 F-35s or 1,500 F-35s wouldn't be able to handle, in conjuction with the 180 F-22s.

Posted by: justin84 | April 8, 2010 4:18 PM | Report abuse

How fortunate that this effort 'accidently' refused to list ObamaCare as an option to cut. Keep up the good work, shills.

Posted by: DaMav | April 8, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Annie, How I love to link unto thou.

(That's iambic pentameter. Sort of.)

Posted by: bmull | April 8, 2010 8:02 PM | Report abuse

You know, it's really annoying for Social Security to be part of the general budget. Boomers have been paying twice as much for decades now, for themselves and their parents. There is no way they should be screwed out of that money when they retire.

Raise taxes on the rich back to the levels they were in Reagan days, and make cuts to the military budget. Don't cut Social Security! It's not an entitlement, it's insurance Boomers have paid far more into for a long time than was needed. That surplus, it's theirs!

Posted by: splashy8 | April 11, 2010 8:19 AM | Report abuse

If someone has money for a cell phone and/or cable bill - then they have money for food at least. If they have an automobile.. it cannot be valued over $2,500.00. I am sure hiring people to "audit" welfare recipients to see if they have phones, cable, cars, what kind of electronics in their home.. jewelry would more than pay for itself within the first year. I am so tired of the "entitlement class". I am sorry your teen daughter is pregnant, or you son has autism, or that you are "too depressed" to hold a normal job. The few American Taxpayers left that are not milking the system are BROKE! The public school systems are a disgrace - U.S. student test scores are lower than several developing, 3rd world countries. We cannot fix everything for everyone. I wish I could work less than 60+ hours per week & spend more time with MY children. Communities that want to help those less fortunate need to do it thru the Church & privately funded programs. I am sick of all these liberals writing checks out that they do not have to SIGN.. especially those to people who have illegally entered the US & continue to break US Laws. They FILE taxes to get the Earned Income Credit - and get MORE OUT than EVER paid in! I cannot believe American Citizens allow this to continue..

Posted by: WakeUpAmericans | April 11, 2010 9:36 PM | Report abuse

It would be nice if some paper - oh I don't know which - would poll this question regularly say weekly and track the results.

Posted by: porsillo | April 11, 2010 9:58 PM | Report abuse

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