The gross U.S. government debt now stands at $17 trillion, more than double what it was a decade ago. It's still expanding, as the Treasury pays out more than it takes in, and the shortfall is expected to grow over the next decade. So it's deeply gratifying to learn that Americans are "highly concerned" about the problem.
That finding comes from the latest monthly Fiscal Confidence Index, compiled by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. "Fully eight in 10 voters (81 percent) say that the president and Congress should spend more time addressing the issue, including six in ten (62 percent) who believe they should be spending a lot more time on it."
Michael Peterson, president of the foundation, says, "It's clear that voters recognize that our nation's long-term fiscal challenges remain, and want Washington to deal with it."
He's right, of course. Americans do want Washington to bring the budget under control. The catch is that they have no idea what it would take — and reject the steps that would be needed. They want it in the same way they want to be thin, rich and well-informed: only if the goal can be achieved with no effort.
The Peterson Foundation is serious about fiscal responsibility, and you can't blame its people for trying to suggest that Americans share its goal. But the poll is more depressing than encouraging. What it makes blindingly obvious is that when it comes to the federal budget, most voters don't have a clue.
Respondents were asked, "When it comes to addressing our national debt, would you say things in the United States are heading in the right direction or do you think things are off on the wrong track?" Only 23 percent say "right direction."
What would the right direction be? A deficit that is shrinking instead of growing. But the deficit has been shrinking — dramatically. Peaking at over $1.4 trillion in fiscal year 2009, it will be less than half that size this year and smaller yet next year.
It's hard to make the argument that this shrinkage represents the wrong direction. But that's what most Americans, mystifyingly, believe.
Saying that Congress and the president should spend more time on the national debt is not quite the same as saying they should take serious steps to contain it, much less reduce it. No one will suffer any tangible loss if our leaders spend more time on these matters instead of pointless speeches or silly resolutions. Actually solving the problem, however, demands that some people give up benefits or pay higher taxes. Neither option elicits long lines of eager volunteers.
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 is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.