Liberal and conservative citizens weighing options for reducing the national debt moderated their views as a result of deliberation in the largest experiment in deliberative democracy ever. They also made hard choices about spending cuts and tax increases, reported political scientists from the University of California, Riverside, UC Berkeley and Harvard University.
Their study – “The Difference that Deliberation Makes” – issued Dec. 2 found that 3,500 Americans who participated in a national town hall on the federal budget June 26 came up with some of the same recommendations as the chairs of President Obama’s bipartisan debt commission, but also differed on some important issues. The Obama commission issued its report earlier this week and is expected to take a final vote on the recommendations today.
Participants in the daylong June town hall meetings – convened by the nonpartisan advocacy group America Speaks in 19 cities and online – favored raising taxes on the very wealthy, raising the corporate income tax rate, and establishing a carbon tax and a security transaction tax. They also supported cuts in national defense and military spending.
“The budget deficit and federal debt are clearly issues about which ordinary Americans care a great deal and are willing to make difficult trade-offs,” said Kevin Esterling, associate professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside and one of the study’s authors.
An inclusive deliberation process, bringing people together through the Internet, can increase the chances for consensus on contentious issues, including how to address the growing federal budget deficit. That is one conclusion expressed in a new report co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Archon Fung.
The report, titled “The Difference that Deliberation Makes: Evaluating the Our Budget, Our Economy Public Deliberation,” analyzed the process that brought together more than 3500 Americans in a set of 57 town hall meetings held simultaneously on June 26, 2010 in cities all across the country. Participants spanned a wide spectrum of ages, ethnicities, religions and political affiliations.
“[The] event appears to have achieved its goals of bringing together a diverse group of ordinary Americans to engage each other in constructive discussion,” the researchers wrote. “Both liberals and conservatives appear to have moderated in their policy views regarding spending cuts and tax increases. And the organizers appear to have been quite successful in creating a forum for open and balanced discussion, based on the self-reports of participants as well as the extensive observation by our 19 on-site research assistants.”
Participants spent much of the meeting learning about, discussing and voting on revenue and spending options that would reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion by 2025. They were presented with 42 options that had been developed by a national advisory committee, and were encouraged to suggest additional options to meet the deficit cutting goal.
When the votes were tallied, a vast majority – 85 percent of participants – expressed support for cutting the defense budget by at least five percent. More than half favored reducing defense spending by at least 15 percent. More than six in ten participants expressed support for reducing health care spending by at least five percent. No options for reducing Social Security benefits received a majority of support.
Several options for raising revenue also received broad support from participants. Many supported raising the limit on taxable Social Security earnings to cover 90 percent of all income. Participants also supported raising tax rates on wealthy individuals: 54 percent favored an extra five percent tax on millionaires and 38 percent favored raising the personal tax rate by 20 percent for the top two income brackets (married couples earning more than $209,000/year). Forty-four percent favored raising the top corporate income tax rate from 35 to 40 percent. Fifty-four percent of participants favored a new carbon tax and half supported a financial securities transaction tax.
“By bringing people together in this type of virtual meeting space, we found that extreme opinions became more moderated, and this, in turn, allowed participants to find common ground on some previously contentious issues,” said Fung. “This speaks to the power of citizen democracy to address the many problems that we face.”
Along with Fung, the report co-authors included Taeku Lee of the University of California at Berkeley; and Kevin Esterling of the University of California-Riverside, all of whom are national experts in public opinion and citizen deliberation.
The full report is posted on the website: www.ash.harvard.edu/docs/AmericaSpeaks.pdf