Pollsters never have found much evidence to support the contention that Americans are ready to accept a more Spartan lifestyle to reduce the federal budget deficit.
Most of us are disciples of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too school of economics, which states that financial sacrifice is fine as long as somebody else is doing the sacrificing.Now comes a report from veteran pollster William Hamilton, who visited four cities and found that balky voters may have to be charmed into making sacrifices by a "charismatic" leader.
"No one sees this type of person currently on the scene," says Hamilton. "Democrats are seen as no better or worse than Republicans."
The prevailing attitude, in the Hamilton survey, was cynicism about politicians, combined with a reluctance to pay higher taxes and a belief that federal deficits are unconnected to "real events."
Hamilton was hired by Democrats at the Center for National Policy to gather small groups of 10 or 15 voters - Republicans, Democrats, independents - for free-wheeling discussions of what to do about the nation's financial problems.
He organized seven such groups in Philadelphia, Kansas City, Charlotte, N.C., and Pasadena, Calif., and found that most voters are mad as hornets about what they perceive as government waste.
The participants told tales of unused equipment tossed into military scrap heaps, food stamps used to buy non-essentials, student loans not repaid, abuse in Social Security survivor benefits, unneeded government studies on esoteric subjects and excessive pork-barreling by freespending members of Congress.
"You see them coming in the store with a handful of food stamps and walk out with a handful of candy bars," said one disgruntled voter. "They should be sent to a class on economical cooking before they can get food stamps."
There were several surprises in the survey:
- Federal income taxes were the preferred means of raising new revenues. Voters were "highly skeptical" of a national sales tax.
- Despite all the talk about waste, no one could name a specific program they thought was clearly frivolous and should be abolished.
- Military spending was considered the most wasteful, but voters felt uncomfortable discussing the merits of specific weapons systems.
- There was little sympathy for farm subsidies, especially in the Kansas City discussion groups, where saving the family farm was thought to be an expensive anachronism.
Social Security, as might be expected, was considered the "most sacred" of all government spending programs, according to Hamilton's report, but even Social Security drew some criticism.
"Participants clearly feel rich people should not receive these benefits," says the report.