Monday, July 11, 2011

On blind spots

With the words "debt ceiling" seemingly set to dominate the conversation in the typically slow summer news cycle, now seems like a prudent time to (again) point out the significant blind spots that many of us have when it comes to our relationship with our own government.

What I'm presenting today is by no means "new", merely topical. For now, I'll turn things over to Catherine Rampell of the New York Times' Economix blog.
In a smart column... Bruce Bartlett looks at why it will be so hard for politicians to cut government spending: because so many Americans who say they support cutting government programs don’t realize just how much they benefit from them.
Remember, for example, when a town hall attendee famously told his congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare”? Apparently that bewilderingly blinkered sentiment is hardly unique.
Mr. Bartlett produces the following chart, from a recent paper by the Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, showing how many recipients of government benefits somehow don’t believe they’ve  received any benefits:
Yikes. Granted, some of these numbers are probably inflated by respondents' differing definitions of what does and does not qualify as a "government social program", but these are still astronomical numbers.

To fully appreciate the importance of these blind spots, I think it's useful to attempt to put these numbers into context. Using just the final line item, "Food Stamps"--which I think is a fairly clear and unambiguous example of a "government social program"--we see that 25.4% of food stamp (pardon me, SNAP) recipients do not consider themselves to have benefited from a government program. This is certain to impact the way they view national issues in federal (especially Presidential) elections, especially when debt and deficits are as large a story as they have currently become.

Recall next that in several states, food stamp usage covers close to (or more than) 20% of the total population (nationwide, food stamp usage rates are at 14%). If a full 25% of people in these states do not think that they benefit from our "big government", that leaves us with 5% of that state's population--easily a big enough group to decide just about any Presidential election*--believing something that is patently false.

* Perhaps unsurprisingly, I actually tested this statement by looking at each individual state's food stamp usage rates. If we take each state's usage rate, multiply it by 25.4% to get the percentage of "blind spot" voters, and then compare that to the popular vote spread from the 2008 Presidential election (that is, by how much--in percent--the state's winning candidate defeated the losing candidate), we can get an idea of how many states' elections could conceivably have been turned by that group of voters. 

As it turns out, 5 states--Missouri, North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, and Montana--have "blind spot" voting contingents that are theoretically large enough to have overwhelmed the margin of victory during the 2008 election. Those 5 states account for 67 electoral votes--not enough to change the overall outcome of the landslide 2008 election, but easily enough to have turned the razor-thin 2000 and 2004 elections. It's not exactly a "likely" scenario--in order to be an election-turner, all of these "blind spot" voters would have to be voting the same way--but it's certainly possible. 

And this study of mine is just considering food stamps, the item on the chart with the lowest "confusion" rate--if I'd done the same calculations with respect to, say, student loans, I can assure you that almost every state would show up as "up for grabs" under these criteria. 

Given the results of my admittedly unscientific study, I think it's certainly safe to ask whether or not these "blind spot" voters are, in fact, our nation's elusive "swing voters".

Alright, that little unanticipated long-winded aside pretty much summed it up. I don't think we as Americans can really address (or expect our politicians to address) our nation's fiscal situation until we properly reconcile our own relationship with government and government programs. If we're not willing to reconsider what we expect our government to do for us, then there's absolutely no way we'll ever be able to balance our budget--or that we'll elect those who can. Budget balancing, ultimately, begins and ends with us. 

[NY Times]

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