Maybe we really do get the politicians we unknowingly want

Published in The News Tribune, August 31, 2011

No matter what poll you believe, the consensus is that Congress is not doing its job.  In fact, only about one in seven of us think it is.  People express mildly more favorable opinions of the Democrat’s Congressional leadership than of the Republican’s.   But overall the blame for this summer’s fiasco seems to be pretty evenly spread around.

Yet blaming all of Congress for the mess it created while dealing with what should have been the relatively straightforward task of raising the debt ceiling doesn’t spread the blame far enough.

That’s because we’re all a part of a larger problem.  Yep.  You and me.

First of all, we hate to pay taxes; about two-thirds of us believe that Americans as a whole are overtaxed.  So it isn’t surprising that a majority of us think we need to make major spending cuts in the federal budget – in fact, we’d like to see even more than Congress has promised to make in the future.

What exactly we’d like to see cut is less clear, though.  We’re actually surprisingly supportive of the way that our federal tax dollars are currently spent.  More than three-quarters of us want to leave Social Security and federal health care programs off the chopping block.

Such attitudes are inconsistent though.  We can’t protect our entitlements, reduce the debt, and lower our tax burden.  We cannot possibly reduce the federal debt without higher taxes or some reduction to Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid.  Realistically, it will most likely require both higher taxes and less generous benefits.

Such inconsistencies in public opinion exist not just with respect with complicated federal budgets and spending programs.  Let’s look closer to home at policies that are easier to understand.

A recent poll found that two-thirds of us wanted to pay no more or even less in taxes that support our schools.  And we’d also like to see tax breaks given to support private schools.

Perhaps reasonable enough.  But in the same poll, by a wide majority we also wanted to see better funded public schools.  In particular we’d like to see smaller classes and have better paid teachers.  Together this indicates that citizens want better funded public schools, more public money spent supporting private schools – all while somehow having our education taxes lowered.

Maybe the problem is we’ve all been steeped in some new math where less taxes and more spending somehow solves federal and state budget problems.  But in the real world, that doesn’t add up:   We can’t enjoy expensive government services, low taxes, and balanced budgets.   We can pick any two of these, and sacrifice the third.  But we can’t have all three.

It might come as no surprise to find out that while we’re all quick to express viewpoints on federal, state and local issues, few of us pay close attention to news on these issues, or devote much time to informing ourselves about them.  For instance only 13 percent of us report paying close attention to education issues.  And in the recent election, only one in four of us in Pierce County felt moved enough to cast a vote to help choose the leaders of our schools and cities.

While it is easy enough for us to recognize that Congress’s recent maneuverings over the debt ceiling were largely motivated by politicians seeking political gains, we should also remember that it is distracted and uninformed citizens such as you and me who are behind these political calculations.  It’s a scary thought, but probably in the end we get the policies and politicians we deserve.