Public would back simple deficit plan

The supercommittee is struggling, and I know it needs ideas, but let’s hope its members avoid the politician’s impulse to look at polls. That just wouldn’t help. As Steve Jobs once sagely opined about consumer market research, polling makes no sense in such circumstances because the unwashed masses don’t really know what they want. The electorate hired the Congress to figure this out, so the members should get it done, and then allow the public to respond afterward.

I’ve seen this pageant before, far too many times. A distinguished group of local, state or national governmental officials is given a complex task. They meet, hear ideas, debate, exchange barbs, hear more testimony, break for lunch, gossip, read, hear more ideas, doodle, argue, disagree, pause and reflect on their inability to come to a conclusion. Then someone says, “Perhaps we should do a poll to see what voters think and want.” This is the speaker’s unstated premise: We, the duly elected and appointed, armed with official positions, formal education and years of experience, can’t figure this out, so why not call up a retired plumber who has voted twice in 10 years and ask him what we should do. That’s right, he’ll have such good ideas we’ll be able to wrap this all up by Thursday. Not.

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I have done focus groups re-enacting this “hot potato” scenario. While I don’t explicitly reveal the desperation for ideas that prompted the group’s formation, the discussants almost always intuit the situation. “Oh, you want us to figure out what to do because you can’t.” You might think their reaction would be one of satisfaction. “Oh, finally, we’re in the driver’s seat; they are going to listen to us.” To the contrary, voters typically get irritable and even hostile. Without prompting, they most always restate my premise: that officials are chosen to make these decisions and should do so. Voters have their own lives to live and their own personal choices to make, about work, family, shopping and so forth, and should not be burdened with also doing the jobs officials seem unable to handle.

So I wouldn’t expect any poll or focus group to discover a new solution to the nation’s budget woes. At least, I wouldn’t expect something detailed to spring forth from the minds of most voters. At best, opinion research would discover broad principles that the public might bring to the discussion, values that ordinary people would invoke in making choices among alternatives. If the appropriate time for the public to weigh in is after the choices are formed and proposed, a few values that the public will probably use to guide its response are simplicity and transparency.

Simple, easy-to-understand solutions are always best received by the public. Across-the-board cuts, for example, typically seen as dumb by insiders, are usually acceptable to John Q. Public. I illustrate with the example of polling on taxes. The public always expresses much greater support for sales taxes than income taxes. The former are transparent, easy to understand and collected in broad daylight, while the latter are inscrutable, their payment shrouded in secrecy. I can watch the richest man in the world pay sales taxes. I’m not even sure he pays income taxes. So a complex plan of budget cuts and revenue increases that require thousands of pages to describe would not inspire public trust and support. But a plan consisting of an across-the-board cut of 7 percent in each federal agency budget, coupled with a 0.25 percent national sales tax (a nickel on a $20 purchase), payable until the budget is balanced, would probably pass muster if that solved the crisis. I don’t know the exact numbers and am not proposing a precise solution, but simply illustrating the point.

David Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.