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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

53 Cents

I’m normally not one of those commentators who wants to blame the ignorance or selfishness of the American people for our political problems. To put it simply, if ignorance is an issue, the blame lies with government, educational, and political officials who apparently haven’t spent enough time educating the public on basic facts. And when it comes to selfishness, there’s no question both major political parties have often competed to convince voters that they should conduct a personal cost-benefit analyisis on their ROI from what they pay in taxes, and cast ballots appropriately.
Still, it’s a bit startling to read the latest ABC/WaPo poll and find that Americans on average think that 53 cents out of every dollar of federal expenditures are “wasted.”
In a very perceptive post for 538.com, Tom Schaller notes that this finding is actually consistent with polls taken for the last twenty years. He goes on to separate the three very different perceptions this consistent opinion might reflect:

The possibilities for what makes government “wasteful” are many, but it seems to me waste can be reduced to three non-exclusive types:
1. Ineffective spending: Spending on programs that do not work;
2. Inefficient spending: Excessive spending or overhead/overpayment on programs that do work; and/or
3. Inappropriate spending: Efficient and effective spending on programs that the respondents normatively view as something the government shouldn’t be involved with in the first place.

Schaller concludes that types 1 and 3 are what most Americans are complaining about, but acknowledges that there’s not much of a national consensus about spending that’s ineffective or inappropriate. If that’s true, then the best progressive response to widespread public convictions about government “waste” would involve constant assessments of the effectiveness of government programs, and a clear sense of priorities that don’t add up to “more of the same.” But this should be undertaken with a clear-eyed understanding that Democrats aren’t much trusted to “cut out waste” in some categories of federal spending, such as defense, just as Republicans aren’t trusted to pare back highly popular New Deal/Great Society programs like Social Security and Medicare.
That means Democrats must articulate a clear and comprehensive strategy for balancing fiscal discipline and government reform with popular public activism on big national challenges that aren’t considered impractical or inappropriate. It’s not that hard to fight what Schaller calls “type 2” waste: bureaucratic inefficiency and so forth. Showing that progressives combine a good set of priorities with a jeweler’s eye for “what works” could be the keys to the poltiical kingdom.

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