Public opinion on budget trade-offs

Americans show a mix of self-interest and ideology in their reactions to trade-offs among domestic spending, defense spending, and taxes.

The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) asked its respondents an interesting item on budget priorities: “The federal budget deficit is approximately $1 trillion this year. If the Congress were to balance the budget it would have to consider cutting defense spending, cutting domestic spending (such as Medicare and Social Security), or raising taxes to cover the deficit. Please rank the options below from what would you most prefer that Congress do to what you would least prefer they do: Cut Defense Spending; Cut Domestic Spending; Raise Taxes.”

The item is explicitly built around trade-offs, given that it asks people for a rank order of their preferences among the three options. Overall, cutting defense spending was the most popular (37% tagged it as their first choice and only 23% as their last) while raising taxes was the least popular (24% placed it first while 42% placed it last). This is neither a “liberal” nor a “conservative” pattern—the most popular item (cutting defense) and the least popular (raising taxes) are both things that liberals tend to support and conservatives tend to oppose, in some form or another. Really, it’s the prioritization of domestic spending relative to the other two that divides the sides. (Indeed, the preference for domestic cuts was one of the items included in the 10-issue CCES ideology scale that I analyzed the other day.)

Who’s more likely to want to protect defense spending by cutting domestic spending, protect domestic spending by raising taxes, and so on? I examined a large range of demographic variables and identified the ones that seem to be making the most substantial contributions.

The chart below shows the results. For data nerds, I’ve included a set of regression results (see the notes below the chart for details). For everyone else, just focus on the “and what they mean” section at the bottom of the chart. In short, different demographic features predict different splits in priorities.

The most common trade-off was between domestic spending and defense spending. There were various features where, on average, it’s more likely for folks to want to protect domestic spending at the expense of defense spending (being black, atheist/agnostic, and LGBT), and others where folks are more likely to want to protect defense spending at the expense of domestic spending (being a veteran or a Christian, particularly an evangelical).

(Notes: The response items are coded 1=first preference, 2=second, and 3=third. The predictor variables are coded 1=applicable and 0=inapplicable. The results are from OLS regressions, and I’m reporting unstandardized coefficients. All evangelicals are also Christians, so the effects of “evangelical” are over-and-above being “Christian.”)

There were also features that predicted wanting to allow higher taxes in favor of protecting either domestic spending (being retired/disabled, atheist/agnostic, and LGBT) or defense spending (being a Baby Boomer or older). Obviously, most of the retired/disabled folks are also older, so this reveals particular support for raising taxes among older folks relative to cutting spending.

And keep in mind that things go the other way as well. The results show that older people and those retired/disabled are relatively more likely to favor higher taxes. But this also means that younger workers are relatively less likely to favor higher taxes, preferring to cut spending. Similarly, the results show blacks favoring domestic over defense spending, but this also implies a relative preference among non-blacks for defense over domestic spending.

Interests and coalitions

Some aspects of these results are consistent with an interest-based perspective. At first, I was surprised that I didn’t see poorer folks being much more likely to want to protect domestic spending (though race shows up). Instead, there was a pretty clear pattern where older folks and retired/disabled folks favored tax increases over spending cuts. But then I went back to the question wording. The question only mentions cuts in Social Security and Medicare as examples of “domestic” cuts. And, sure enough, retirees and disabled folks are more likely to favor protecting this spending (which for many of them is a big deal), trading it off against higher taxes (which wouldn’t greatly affect many of them). Similarly, military veterans want to protect defense spending—some of these veterans are currently enlisted, and, at any rate, almost 10% of the defense budget is allocated to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The results remind me of another survey showing that, when forced to choose among spending priorities, older folks prioritize Social Security and defense, while younger folks prioritize job creation and education. If you don’t see at least a bit of self-interest there, then you need to check your glasses.

Other features show the potency of current ideological and party coalitions. In particular, atheists/agnostics and LGBT folks are often liberal on lots of different kinds of issues, whereas evangelicals (and particularly white evangelicals) are often conservative on lots of different kinds of issues (see, e.g., here).

Even for religion and sexual orientation, though, there’s a degree of interest-based thinking available. Some of the fight over safety-net spending involves relative preferences between governmental safety nets and private charitable programs. Kurzban and I have argued that people who might rationally worry about discrimination from white, Christian charities (e.g., non-whites, non-Christians, and LGBT folks) ought to have some degree of preference for non-discriminatory governmental safety-net programs.

But it’s clear that some dramatic recent shifts—in ideological clustering and specifically in the economic policy preferences of wealthier non-Christians—also have coalitional aspects. The Reagan era brought about a lasting alignment between religious conservatives and small-government conservatives, pushing many non-Christians to the left and away from their former libertarianish positions. Though I don’t have data directly on point, I’m assuming that the story has been similar for LGBT folks. It also seems likely that we’ve seen a related story with military veterans, as Republican support for defense spending has drawn veterans in and produced some coalitional shifts in veterans’ views on rich-poor and religious issues.

These kinds of coalitional trends aren’t, of course, wholly divorced from interests. They involve folks who really care about a given set of interest-based positions adjusting opinions on other issues that are less important to them. This produces results such as those we’ve just seen for budget priorities, where some predicting features seem interest-based while others seem coalitional. Yet, typically, the underlying patterns of coalitional choice are themselves linked to interests. It would be a real stretch to argue, for instance, that the current Democratic/liberal coalition (which strongly opposes group-based discrimination) doesn’t represent high-priority interests of most atheists and LGBT folks, and vice versa for the Republican/conservative coalition in relation to white evangelicals.

As I’ve said, there’s a big overlap among the standard toolkit of political explanations. It’s usually not very plausible to make this-thing-matters-but-that-thing-doesn’t sorts of arguments when thinking about demographics, identities, interests, partisanship, ideology, and issue positions. It’s all there, intermingled, thwarting facile answers.