Why America’s red ink really is rising

Welcome to budget week in Washington: President Obama proposes his budget, his opponents slam it, and the inter-party slugfest over fiscal policy resumes. But, if you want to understand the fiscal paralysis in Washington, dispense with this week’s theatrics and read the insightful story that the New York Times ran this past weekend about the conflicting views of average Americans about the federal budget.

Meet Ki Gulbranson, the first person featured in “Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It,” which adorned the Times’ Sunday front page. He’s 57, lives in the Minnesota town of Lindstrom, owns a logo apparel shop, and makes about $39,000 a year – and, like lots of Americans these days, he says he doesn’t need any help from the federal government, thinks other Americans get too much from government, and wants policymakers to cut spending down to size.

Gulbranson, though, gets several thousand dollars a year from something called the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, which was created in 1975, has been expanded several times since then, and helps working families offset the payroll taxes that they pay to finance Social Security. He also signed up his three school-age kids to eat free breakfast and lunch under federal programs, and Medicare financed two hip surgeries for his 88-year-old mother.

As the Times notes, nearly half of U.S. households received government benefits in 2010, ranging from universal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare that increasingly dominate domestic spending to anti-poverty measures like the Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment benefits, and food assistance.

Gulbranson and his Chisago County neighbors offer a fascinating mix of conflicting views about federal deficits, federal benefits, and how they fit together. More than anything else, these conflicting views explain why America’s leaders talk one way and act another about America’s fiscal problem.

“And as more middle-class families like the Gulbransons land in the safety net in Chisago and similar communities, anger at the government has increased alongside,” the Times wrote. “Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it. But more than that, they say they want to reduce the role of government in their own lives. They are frustrated that they need help, feel guilty for taking it and resent the government for providing it. They say they want less help for themselves; less help in caring for relatives; less assistance when they reach old age.”

The Times, though, pressed the point with Gulbranson and others, forcing them to face the contradictions between their thoughts and actions.

“But the reality of life here is that Mr. Gulbranson and many of his neighbors continue to take as much help from the government as they can get. When pressed to choose between paying more and taking less, many people interviewed here hemmed and hawed and said they could not decide. Some were reduced to tears. It is much easier to promise future restraint than to deny present needs.”

This jumble of thoughts about fiscal matters derives from a series of economic and political factors that date back decades.

For one thing, with incomes largely stagnant for most households in recent decades, Americans are far less inclined to pay higher taxes or receive fewer benefits than they would be if incomes were rising.

For another, government has not fulfilled the grandest aspirations of its most liberal leaders, so average Americans are skeptical that Washington is not wasting lots of tax dollars. President Johnson, for instance, launched a War on Poverty a half-century ago, with lots of money and initiatives, making it all too easy for Ronald Reagan and other conservatives to later muse that

“poverty won.”

For still another, decades of government bashing – mostly, but not exclusively, by Republicans – have taken their toll on public attitudes. You can hardly blame Americans for thinking the federal government largely wastes their tax dollars when they’ve been hearing that very thing from their leaders.

Americans often complain that Washington is “out of touch,” that candidates for office promise to serve “the people” but, once elected, serve the “special interests” who contribute to their campaigns.

Yes, that’s true to some extent. But, Americans often lose sight of the other side of this political coin. On tangible issues about which people care deeply – e.g., what they will pay in taxes and what benefits they will receive – elected officials are hyper-sensitive to the views of their constituents.

That explains why America’s leaders are not addressing America’s frightening long-term fiscal problem. To do so, they would have to raise real taxes (and not just on the rich) and cut real benefits on which tens of millions of people rely – and Americans simply don’t support those measures.

So, who’s to blame – the politicians, or us?

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