Random people say government wastes money

The libertarian magazine Reason released a Christmas tree of a poll on Tuesday, with dozens of questions on government spending, U.S. policy toward Syria, Facebook’s stewardship of personal data, and other topics on which people mostly agree with the editors of Reason magazine.

Among the ornaments:

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• 76 percent of the 1,013 Americans polled by land-line and mobile phones say that the federal government spends “too much money.”

• 70 percent oppose raising the federal debt ceiling, and 55 percent opposed raising the ceiling even if “the U.S. defaults on its debt.”

• 58 percent “mostly” or “completely agree” that “Congress passes too many laws.”

• 67 percent “mostly” or “completely agree” that “Congress passes the wrong kind of laws.”

• 51 percent agree more with the statement “the less government the better,” while 44 percent agree more with the statement, “there are more things the government should be doing.” Some of the people who agreed with the latter statement must have also said the government spends too much money, so there may have been some confusion over the meaning of the word “more.” Does it mean lengthening the entire list of what the government does or adding some functions and taking away others? (This result is not mentioned in the Overview of the survey; you need to download the Detailed Tables to find it.)

One limitation of the survey is that there are no trend lines, or comparisons to previous polls. Reason has been commissioning surveys for at least two years, but the questions aren’t consistent. I’m sure that some people would say that government “spends too much” no matter what the government actually spends and for what. The response is a kind of braking mechanism, and it doesn’t necessarily say anything about government spending at the time the poll is taken. It’s like asking if the government should do more to fight crime; a large percentage of respondents will answer “yes” regardless of whether the crime rate is rising or falling. Hopefully, Reason will settle on some questions to pose on a regular basis so we can see whether attitudes change over time.

I have no idea what to make of this part of the survey:

In response to open-ended questions, Americans told Reason-Rupe the government wastes 60 cents out of every dollar they pay in federal taxes and they’d cut federal spending by 30 percent across the board.

These are pretty specific numbers to pull out of “open-ended questions.” Is 60 percent a median guess, or is it an average pulled upward by a few wiseacres who say that all government spending is wasteful?

Speaking of the public’s grasp on public finances, the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (as reported by the Harvard School of Public Health) includes a study on how people think Medicare is funded:

One reason that many Americans believe Medicare does not contribute to the deficit is that the majority thinks Medicare recipients pay or have prepaid the cost of their health care. Medicare beneficiaries on average pay about $1 for every $3 in benefits they receive. However, about two-thirds of the public believe that most Medicare recipients get benefits worth about the same (27%) or less (41%) than what they have paid in payroll taxes during their working lives and in premiums for their current coverage.

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