According to this Reason-Rupe poll, Americans think the government wastes a lot of money. Like, half of all of the tax dollars they collect from us.
And it’s not one of those situations where poll respondents on the right think the government is wasting pretty much all of our tax dollars while respondents on the left think the government wastes very little. Looking at the demographic breakdowns, the consensus opinion right, left, and center is that the government is wasting about half of every dollar in taxes they collect from us.
The amount of waste perceived goes up and down a little bit based on age and politics, but not by much.
But here’s what I don’t understand about polls like this one: If Americans really feel this way, why aren’t we firing every incumbent every election until we get waste under control?
There are a few possible explanations:
First, that this poll is flawed. People don’t really feel this way. This is possible, I suppose, but I think this really is reflective of American attitudes. Americans are very cynical about their political leaders, and that cynicism is regularly displayed in polls like this one and others which regularly rank Congress’ approval rating in the teens and lower. I think people really do this way.
Second, this is just NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), with everyone thinking spending everyone else likes is wasteful. Like Republicans thinking entitlement spending is wasteful, while Democrats think the same of military spending. I’m sure there’s an element of that in this, but again we’re talking about people believing roughly half of all government spending is wasteful. That’s something more than NIMBY.
Third, maybe Americans don’t care.
I think the third is the most likely answer. I think Americans don’t really care that much about this. And I think that feeling stems either from helplessness, that this waste is so pervasive and entrenched that there’s no fixing it, or that they don’t really see the tax dollars as their money.
That last has a lot to do with a US tax code that is difficult to understand, and lopsided in its burdens. Most of the income tax burden in the United States is lumped onto the top income brackets. The top 10 percent of income earners paid over 70 percent of the income tax in 2013.
What’s more, to the extent that most Americans do pay federal taxes, they’re usually hidden. Income tax withholdings, and taxes for social programs like Social Security and Medicare, are withheld from paychecks before Americans even see a dime. These taxes are just numbers on a pay stub. Intellectually they know it’s taxes they paid, but emotionally I doubt few Americans ever really considered the money theirs.
Even the dreaded April 15th income tax filing deadline is more about a refund, for most Americans, than what they paid. Ask your friends and family what their income tax burden is. They probably have no idea, but they can tell you how much they got back from the government. People are usually gleeful about this, as if getting your own money back were a gift or something.
Our lopsided, withholding-based tax code has isolated many Americans from the cost of the federal government, even when they really are paying. And that’s how so many Americans can perceive the government as wasting so much money without reaching for the pitchforks and torches.