Steve Chapman

This brand of thrift is perfectly attuned to public sentiment, which is for spending reductions in general and against them in particular. A January Gallup poll found that in only one area did a majority of citizens favor spending less federal money. The area? Foreign aid.

One reason Americans think they want big budget cuts is that they don't know what they'd be cutting. Most think foreign aid accounts for 10 percent of the budget, compared to the true figure of about 1 percent.

They also imagine that public broadcasting consumes 5 percent -- when the reality is one-fiftieth that amount. They think federal employee pension costs are triple what they actually are.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid soak up some 40 percent of the budget, and their share will expand as baby boomers sidle off into retirement. But in an April Economist/YouGov survey, only 7 percent of Americans -- including just 9 percent of Republicans -- favored lower funding for Social Security. Medicare? Also 7 percent, with 11 percent of Republicans agreeing.

Even the rise of the tea party and the fight over the debt ceiling have not caused people to come to grips with fiscal reality. An August Economist/YouGov poll found that 56 percent of Americans said we can bring spending under control without reductions in Social Security and Medicare. Only 24 percent admit what every fiscal expert knows.

Maybe the looming consequences of huge federal deficits will finally force the American public and their elected officials to sober up and agree on painful cuts in popular programs. But no one ever lost money betting on the opposite.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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