Steve Chapman

In the abstract, voters endorse tough fiscal decisions. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 73 percent blame the deficit on "spending too much money on federal programs that are either not needed or wasteful." But they have enormous difficulty identifying the programs that are too big.

A survey last year by the Pew Research Center asked Americans whether they favored spending cuts in 19 specific areas -- including defense, the environment, unemployment, Social Security, education, law enforcement and veterans' benefits. In none of the 19 did most people want to spend less.

The sole category for which a plurality of citizens was willing to reduce outlays is "aid to world's needy." On average, people estimate foreign aid eats up 28 percent of the federal budget. In fact, it accounts for 1 percent, which means that even abolishing it entirely would have a tiny effect on the red ink.

Even when they get the chance to make small trims across a range of programs, voters get cold feet. After automatic cuts in discretionary outlays took effect in March 2013, Gallup asked citizens whether these were "a good thing or a bad thing for the country." Just 17 percent said "good thing."

Liberals may take this response to mean Americans would rather pay more in taxes than get less in benefits. In fact, Gallup has found that only 11 percent want to close the budget gap mostly or entirely by raising taxes.

Americans, in short, are willing to do anything to cut the deficit and restrain the debt except what needs to be done. They overwhelmingly prefer bogus remedies to real ones and magical thinking to reality.

Every politician knows when it comes to the budget, people can accept being lied to. It's the truth they can't abide.

Steve Chapman

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

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