On my last visit I noticed that my 8 year-old nephew had done an "If I was President, I would…" assignment that was proudly pinned to the wall as one commonly does with a child's school work. It was as excellent as I would expect from him, starting with a guarantee of solar powered jet packs for everyone (CAVEAT: Except for Bad Guys) before noting that "taxes should be cut 75% and everyone should get everything they want."

Adults love this kind of thing. There is something inherently amusing, perhaps even heartwarming depending on how much one likes children, about watching kids respond to things they don't completely understand with their imaginations. It's the reason people always ask small kids how old they think Daddy is. Knowing full well that they lack this information and probably do not grasp the concept of age very well, we nonetheless laugh heartily when the child says "Daddy is seven" or, alternatively, "Daddy is 200."

There is quite a bit of this going on when a teacher gives second-graders an assignment such as this one. Kids don't understand politics and we know their responses will lie somewhere among cute, funny, and incomprehensible. It is very easy, therefore, to read my nephew's response and chuckle. "Ha ha! Kids say the darndest things." Unfortunately, this is usually the exact same response that voting adults give to similar, albeit more specific questions. Minus the jet packs. Adults rarely bring up that part.

The fundamental problem with our government's balance sheet, which as we all know is deeply in the red, is that decision-makers respond to electoral incentives, which in turn means that they are responsive to constituent preferences (although the degree to and conditions under which they are responsive is hotly debated in political science). And constituent preferences make absolutely no sense collectively. Everyone wants more stuff from the government, lower taxes, and a balanced budget. Come to think of it, throw in a damn jet pack while we're at it. If we're making shit up, we might as well go hog wild.

The following data are from a handful of recent polls. Note that they are not all from the same poll, but each is based on a nationwide random sample:

  • "Do you think Congress has done enough to help create jobs, or don't you think so?" (CNN/Opinion Research Feb 12-15)
    14% Has done enough
    84% Don't think so
  • "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling the budget deficit?" (USA Today/Gallup March 26-28)
    37% Approve
    61% Disapprove
  • "Which of the following comes closer to your view of the budget deficit? The government should run a deficit if necessary when the country is in a recession and is at war. OR, The government should balance the budget even when the country is in a recession and is at war." (Bloomberg Nov. 2009)
    30% Run a deficit
    67% Balance the budget
  • Making the expiring Bush tax cuts permanent (CNN/Opinion Research Apr. 9-11)
    60% Favor
    33% Oppose
  • So, there you have it. Welcome to your new job as President, kid. "Create jobs" somehow (without spending money), keep cutting everyone's taxes, and balance the budget while you're at it. Oh, by the way, don't touch any entitlement programs. This collection of preference is nowhere near as eloquent, colorful, or amusing as the policies expressed by my 8 year-old nephew yet they manage to communicate the same idea. The only difference is that adults have a lot of rationalizations that purport to make this possible; for example, we can cut taxes and balance the budget by "cutting spending", usually on something like "earmarks" or "welfare" or some other $100 million chunk that means absolutely nothing in the yawning chasm of a multi-trillion dollar deficit. And some people express wonder that we keep borrowing, year after year.

    Pardon me for being subjective, but this is a lot less cute when eligible voters do it. I prefer the apple-cheeked eight year-old version. It allows me to plausibly claim that he will mature, something that the average American will not do in adulthood and probably skipped in adolescence.