Voices
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A time for choosing

Website offers Americans a chance to weigh in on where to cut federal spending

Issue: "Food stamps surge," Nov. 19, 2011

If it came right down to it, your choices were limited to just two, and you had to decide which of the two was the better way for the federal government to save a few billion dollars over the next several years-would you (1) eliminate all subsidies for the ethanol industry, or (2) end all subsidies for Amtrak?

I could have asked the same sort of question with hundreds of different pairs. For example, if it were your task to rescue the Social Security program, would you prefer cutting all benefits by 10 percent, or delaying the launch of benefits from age 65 to age 67? Remember: it's one or the other.

Human nature suggests a compromise-a little of one and a little of the other. But in this exercise, there's no fudging. You've got to come down on one side or the other.

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I watched this scenario at work a few days ago while a group called the Tea Party Debt Commission sought to form an increasingly clear snapshot of what the American public thinks about reducing the size of its federal government. I was impressed with the process.

What's altogether unimpressive these days are the reports coming from the so-called Super Committee on Deficit Reduction appointed by the U.S. Congress. A dozen Republicans and a dozen Democrats were charged last summer with recommending-no later than Thanksgiving weekend-specific cuts in the federal deficit that would amount to $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. The deadline's getting close, and word is that there's little agreement on any meaningful specifics.

Not to worry, said the folks over at Tea Party headquarters. We'll make some recommendations for you-and we'll have them in your hands before the Thanksgiving deadline, backed up with some not-so-very-difficult research. For good measure, our proposed reductions won't be just for your paltry $1.2 trillion over 10 years, but a whopping $9 trillion in the same period.

The research tool they devised strikes me as simple, accurate, and economical for both sponsors and users.

Simple, because it starts with a website you can go to this very minute (Teapartydebtcommission.com) and navigate without confusion. There you will be shown a short series of pairs of potential spending cuts. For each pair, you'll be asked to resist the temptation to cut both-but instead to pick the more desirable of the two cuts.

You'll face a short list of fewer than a dozen pairings. Each is randomly chosen; for one respondent it may be A vs. B, C vs. D, etc., while for the next respondent it's A vs. C, B vs. D, etc. Each category thereby develops its standing as an overall "winner" or a "loser" in the public mind. From the survey's accumulated results, its sponsors are developing a precise "crowd-sourced" budget. Already, some 750,000 respondents have made their choices, giving the survey enormous breadth.

Already, the sponsors are able to say-on the basis of significant popular response-that the repeal of Obamacare is the highest priority deficit-trimmer out there. Second place goes to wasteful buying in the Pentagon. Third place would close down Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The fourth place vote goes to the closing of the Department of Education.

But there's yet another dimension to the Tea Party survey that gives it a certain slam-dunk quality. Respondents are invited (but not required) to indicate their present party affiliation. That gives the data processors the ability to calculate the deficit-trimming preferences of Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, independents, etc. But much more significant, it allows for the identification of deficit-cutting measures that clearly appeal across party lines-identifying the often-elusive "common ground" that politicians say they are looking for. Perhaps giving courage to otherwise timid legislators.

So guess what? Even on such "common ground," including voters from all political backgrounds, the priorities are the same. It's by no means just Republicans who think repeal of Obamacare is the first and best way to cut the federal deficit.

Have at it, WORLD readers. Have your say on how to chop the deficit. More details about the folks behind this remarkable effort are at freedomworks.org/tea-party-debt-commission.

Email: jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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