Cut the deficit, but not my benefits!
Bruce Bartlett raises some good questions about whether people really want a smaller government, including those in the "tea party" movement.
First, he demonstrates that people don't know where most of the money goes:
"Many polls show that the vast majority of Americans have no idea of the true composition of federal spending. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, just 35% of Americans know that Social Security, Medicare and national defense spending constitute more than 50% of the federal budget. Polls consistently show that most people grossly overstate the percentage of foreign aid in the budget. A 2001 poll showed that half of all Americans thought foreign aid comprised at least 20% of the budget, and the average response was 25%. In fact, foreign aid is less than 1% of the budget and has been for decades.
"Consequently, most people tend to think that balancing the budget is a relatively easy task just requiring political will, something that would not affect them personally. Even members of Congress often give the impression that all we have to do is eliminate earmarks and pork barrel spending and that would be enough. In fact, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group, there was only $19.6 billion of pork in the budget last year, less than 1% of federal spending.
"The truth is that the big money is in two federal programs: Social Security and Medicare. However, it is extremely rare to hear any of those concerned about federal spending target these programs for cuts. One reason is that Medicare alone covers about 45 million people, 22% of the voting-age population. Moreover, according to Census Bureau data, those over age 65--virtually all of whom qualify for Medicare--vote in the highest percentages of any age group. Consequently, any effort to reduce benefits for this population is going to confront strenuous opposition, which explains Republican pandering on Medicare during the health care debate."
Bartlett then goes on to explain a plan by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), which aspires to eliminate the federal deficit by 2080:
"In short, the core of Ryan's proposal is to implement George W. Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, which got virtually no public support even when the stock market was booming, and essentially abolish Medicare altogether while raising taxes on the health benefits of most workers. He basically assumes that the market for health insurance would somehow adjust to prevent a significant cut in the quality of health care."
How many Americans will support that? Not many.
Bartlett then offers some food for thought to the tea party crowd:
"In my opinion, support for the Ryan plan must be the minimum requirement for anyone who considers themselves members of the tea party brigade and any politician seeking its endorsement. If those like former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the current darling of the tea party crowd, are unwilling to immediately and unequivocally endorse the Ryan plan or put forward something equally serious and comprehensive, then in my opinion they have no credibility on the budget and no right to oppose the sorts of tax increases that I believe are unavoidable.
"I think it is irresponsible to say, as almost all tea party goers do, that they are unalterably opposed to tax increases without specifying spending cuts--large cuts in popular programs that go far beyond foreign aid, earmarks and even a budget freeze. And if they are serious they must admit that coming anywhere close to budget balance cannot be done without slashing Social Security and Medicare benefits. There's no way around that and anyone who says so is either ignorant or a fool."
I personally could live with some of Ryan's proposals if it guaranteed my kids would inherit a future America that doesn't look like nowadays Greece. But I don't think you'll get many voters, and thus Congresscreatures, on board.
Robert Brokamp is the senior advisor for The Motley Fool’s Rule Your Retirement service.