Poll: Public still has basically no idea what's driving America's gigantic budget deficits

This is why I drink.

“Americans do not have a realistic picture of the budget,” says J. Ann Selzer, the Des Moines, Iowa-based pollster who conducted the survey. “We all know people who are in debt yet cannot for the life of them figure out where the money goes.”…

More than 7 in 10 respondents say slashing foreign aid and pulling troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan would result in substantial savings, and large majorities back such moves. Yet foreign aid accounts for about 1 percent of federal spending, and the Pentagon requested $159 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year, less than 5 percent of Obama’s $3.83 trillion federal budget.

Fewer than half of respondents say cutting Medicare benefits or raising the age at which Americans receive Social Security retirement benefits would have a large impact on the deficit, and only 2 in 10 favor cutting Medicare benefits. Such entitlements account for about 40 percent of the budget and are the main drivers of the long-term deficit.

Looking for the crosstabs? Read ’em and weep. Admittedly, some of the questions on unrelated matters are transparently slanted; at one point, within a broader context of asking about union concessions and state budget crunches, Bloomberg floats this mind-bender: “Who do you believe has more political power—labor unions or corporate America?” Which is super, except that the momentous question of public employee unions is really more of a choice between unions and taxpayers, not the faceless plutocrats of “corporate America.” They’re simply nudging the respondents with red-herring questions like that to sympathize more with unions.

So yes, approach with caution. But even so, this question seems straightforward enough:

Fully 72 percent think reducing foreign aid would produce some sort of “large” savings whereas 51 percent think reducing Medicare benefits would produce savings that are small-ish. To jog your memory about this, we could disband the U.S. military for a year — no funding for defense of any sort — and we would still be only about halfway towards eliminating the annual deficit. Which makes me wonder: Is there any meaningful distinction for most of the public between spending they want to cut and spending that must be cut? Defense is a big chunk of the budget relative to, say, earmarks, and tales of Pentagon waste and the oft-touted stat about how we spend more on our military than the next umpteen nations do on theirs surely resonate when the public’s thinking about trimming budgetary fat. But where, oh where, does the idea come from that foreign aid is some huge fountain of red ink instead of Medicare? It’s chump change. The only explanation I have for that distorted view is that foreign aid is something the public’s willing to cut whereas Medicare, emphatically, is not. Am I missing something here or are we really that deep in denial?

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