Guns and Butter Americans Would Rather Cut Military Spending Than Social Security

Richard Eskow

Here’s something else for the President to consider while he’s drafting the Social Security portion of his State of the Union message: Yet another poll demonstrates the public’s strong support for Social Security, and its strong opposition to benefit cuts. But this one has a new twist: It shows that, by overwhelming margins, Americans would rather cut military spending than reduce Social Security benefits.

That’s true of Republicans and independents as well as Democrats, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. According to the poll’s summary statistics, when asked whether they would rather cut Social Security, Medicare, or military spending, 55% chose the military. Only 13% chose Social Security, and Medicare, and 21% chose Medicare. Military cuts were preferred by a clear majority of independents and overall voters (55%), and by a plurality of Republicans (42%).

(TheTimes also reports that “nearly two-thirds of Americans choose higher payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security over reduced benefits in either program,” but both the summary and the raw data appear to show the opposite. We have asked the Times for a clarification.)

Even when forced to choose among benefit cuts for Social Security and Medicare, the policy options being considered in Washington were unpopular. Only 18% wanted to raise the retirement age, and only 8% wanted to reduce scheduled benefits for future retirees. They preferred to reduce benefits for Americans with higher incomes. (That’s bound to win support when, as in this poll, they’re not told who who’s considered an “American with a higher income.” If they knew that the Simpson/Bowles proposal (often mischaracterized as “the Deficit Commission proposal”) classifies people who earn $20,000 a year as “higher income Americans” (that’s where benefit cuts begin) or that another proposal (Concord Coalition) classifies family income of $40,000 per year upon retirement as higher income, this option might not be as popular.

The poll received a similar response for Medicare. Only 21% of respondents wanted to raise the eligibility age for Medicare, while 48% wanted to raise the premium for high-income recipients.

For reasons known only to the poll’s designers, people were not asked their response to the public’s preferred option: raising the cap on payroll taxes, which currently stands at approximately $106,000. Polling has consistently shown that this is the preferred option for majorities in all parties (and none). This was reaffirmed by a recent poll which showed that 63% of voters preferred this solution.

In the age old debate about “guns versus butter,” the public’s verdict is clear. A country that’s still reeling from the Great Recession would rather cut Pentagon spending than do without its Land’O’Lakes margarine, and all the other necessities of life, when the time comes to retire.

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