Public opinion and the budget debate

As far back as the 1960s public opinion scholars figured out that most Americans are not political philosophers and that they don’t know very much about politics or public policy. A recent CNN poll shows that things haven’t changed much.

  • On average, Americans think that the United States spends 10% of its budget on foreign aid. More than 1 in 5 think that the number is closer to 30%. (The real figure is less than 1%.)
  • On average, Americans think that the United States spends 5% of its national budget on public television and NPR. (The real figure is less than 0.1%.)
  • On average, Americans think that the United States spends 10% of its budget on pensions and retirement benefits for employees. (The real figure is about 3.5%.)

This is important because Congress is currently debating next year’s federal budget. The entire debate is about spending on things like education, foreign aid, pensions, and even NPR. Collectively, these things all make up less than 15% of the total budget. The big items in the budget are the military and entitlements like social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. And interest on the national debt. But no one’s really talking about those things to any degree of seriousness.

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