People in the USA are confused about the Federal Budget
Alternative title: Dog bites man.
The results of a new CNN poll are still very interesting, since the poll is much more thorough than the many other polls which showed, more or less, the same thing.
CNN has a write up where they note that the median respondent seems to think that much more money could be saved by cutting programs which he-she wants to cut. Those programs are foreign aid (as always) and, by a plurality, pensions and benefits for retired government workers.
The median respondent thinks that 10% of the budget is spent on “Aid to foreign countries for international development and humanitarian assistance.” 11% of respondents think that more than 50% of the federal budget is spent on such aid (more than the 5% who correctly answer “less than 1%”).
This is interesting, because it helps us evaluate Duncan Black’s (Atrios’s) hypothesis that people consider of military services directly provided in kind (US soldiers in NATO bases) foreign aid. In fact, 10% while absurd is much lower than numbers for foreign aid from other polls. Simple arithmetic would suggest that the median US adult thinks that well over 10% of the US budget is foreign military aid which fits Black’s hypothesis.
My guess looking at the poll however, is that the context matters more than the precise budget item in question. If the questions were asked in the order the results are presented, respondents were asked about Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and Military spending before they were asked about foreign development and humanitarian aid. The sum of the median answers to those questions is 85%. This makes the median answer to share on foreign aid of 10% sound very high indeed. The median respondent (a purely theoretical construct which doesn’t correspond to a human being) thinks that 95% of the budget is spent on those programs.
Rather alarmingly the sum of median shares on the programs about which the pollster asked is 137%. Those programs did not include interest on the national debt, farm subsidies, NASA or the NIH.
Here I have a complaint with CNN — they present median answers but do not present mean answers. The logic is that with outliers (such as those who claim that more than half of the budget is foreign aid) the median is a less noisy measure of the central tendency — the mean squared difference between the sample median and the polulation median is much smaller than the mean squared difference between the sample mean and the population mean.
However, the sum of the medians is not the median of the sums. CNN chose not to report which fraction of respondents assigned more than 100% of the federal budget to the listed programs (it is definitely not 0%) or the median sum. If they had reported average answers, it would be very easy to assess the struggle of the average respondent with arithmetic.
update: Atrios remains confused about the confusion of other people in the USA.
I do not place much stock in unscientific polls. My default assumption is that the questions are biased.
But besides that, do not trust polls that ask people to estimate percentages. They are much more accurate and consistent when asked to estimate actual quantities. What is the point of having poll results confounded with math mistakes? Keep the math simple. Elementary school level, not middle school level.
Hmmm. Can we consider tax breaks for multinational corporations foreign aid? 😉
Hmmm. I see I was a bit unfair to CNN concerning political bias. My apologies. 🙂
However, since the point of the poll was to show that Americans are stupid, asking them to estimate percentages is a pretty sure thing.
If they were really interested in public opinion, they could have asked questions like this. Last year the Federal budget was X dollars. The gov’t spent Y dollars on foreign aid. How much do you think that the gov’t should have spent on foreign aid?
People here will, err, appreciate this quote:
“Budget experts agree that cutting a target that big would be a good start toward getting the deficit under control. Problem is, 87 percent of people we surveyed don’t want to decrease the amount of money spent on Social Security – and four in ten would like to see that figure grow. The same is generally true for Medicare and Medicaid, which combined made up 19 percent of last year’s budget,” adds Holland.”
Keating Holland is the CNN Polling Director. Notice the suggestion to cut Social Security, and the appeal to unnamed “budget experts”, who agree. (Mirabile dictu!) Notice also the weasel words, “a target that big”, which affords deniability. “I didn’t say that we should cut Social Security.” (Yeah, right!)
Why is CNN interested in showing the ignorance of the American public about the Federal deficit? Why does it claim that it is not just ignorance, but stupidity? Is it to say that the public cannot be trusted about the budget, while nameless budget experts can be?
OK, two examples of bias.
1) Calling “Pensions and benefits for retired government workers” a gov’t program is inaccurate. What if the poll had called them contractual obligations? (Also, are they including military personnel in gov’t workers?)
2) Giving unbalanced choices: “I’d like you to tell me whether you think federal spending on that program should be increased, kept the same, decreased a little, or decreased a lot, or if you think that program should be eliminated entirely.”
There are three choices for decreased spending, only one for increased spending. That will bias the results in a predictable way. Better to offer five choices, from increased a lot to decreased a lot. (There is also some order bias. There is some tendency to reject the first option given. The order should have been balanced among subjects in a random fashion.)
Most Americans have real jobs and don’t get to sit around thinking about public policy and studying economics.
Which does not mean they are stupid.
I don’t see why you call this poll “unscientific.” If you believe and mean to say that polls are, by definition, unscientific, the, for you “unscientific” is redundant. The correct way to write your claim would be “I don’t believe polls. I think they are unscientific.” The poll to which I linked is as scientific as any poll.
I think it is easier for people to guess percentages than dollar amounts. The federal budget is huge and people don’t know how huge. Also people have trouble with huge numbers (a billion rhymes with a million).
I see you don’t see the value in asking people to guess facts. Your proposed poll asks about policy choices after providing the facts. I find polling on questions of fact very interesting (obviously I blogged about it). For one thing it is quite rare. There are many polls on whether this or that budget should be increased and very few asking what the budget is. I think it is important for CNN for example to assess public knowledge. It is a measure of their job performance (horrible).
I think big media companies should consider it their responsibility to inform the public and blame themselves for its ignorance. I am very interested in a poll in which, say, CNN surveys CNN watchers and the general public. CNN watchers will know more (they demonstrate an interest in public affairs). But they will still be ignorant. OK I proposed this to the Washington Post (note they have addresses of subscribers) as a comment on Ezra Klein’s blog.
My idea of proper behavior by a news source in cases like this is the case of New York Times reporting on Central America in the 80s. It was learned from a poll that most respondents didn’t know that the US government was supporting the government in El Salvador and the armed opponents of the government in Nicaragua. After that poll, every story identified which side in which war was “leftist” and which was “us supported”. As a US citizen, I was irritated by the identification of my country with its appalling government, but I appreciated the effort.
CNN is, as usual, abusing the acronym “IQ”. It has become standard to call tests of knowledge in field x tests of “field x IQ.” I think we should just accept that the meaning of the acronym has changed.
I think the poll could be useful for two reasons. First it should guide news organizations. They have utterly failed to do their job. They should know that and try to do better. Second it can guide political strategy. I’m sure that an error like the systematic overestimate of the foreign aid budget doesn’t happen by chance. I’m sure people think that because they want to think that because they want to think that must money could be saved by cutting inefficient foreign aid efforts (if AID spent 10 times what it does and accomplished as little as it does, it would be inefficient — I think this is the best spent money in the Federal budget, but I am dividing the impact by the true budget — if I underestimated the efficiency of foreign aid by a factor of 10 I wouldn’t be so sure that it is exactly the very very very last part of the budget that I would be willing to cut).
But the fact that citizens are (perfectly rationally, intelligently and reasonably as you note) ignorant of the facts suggests a strategy of telling them the facts again and again. Notably, Democrats won’t do this. They think that telling the citizens something which contradicts the citizens’ guess (without telling them they were wrong) will offend and irritate them. My guess is that the false beliefs are not easily changed (see above, I think that they are systematically false for a reason other than just that people are busy). Still I think the strategy of telling and telling and telling the facts is worth a try.
Finally there is something else. There is sometimes some sense that public policy should be made as the people wish it to be made (sometimes going against the people’s will is considered virtuous courage — it depends). To the extent that people feel this (this as part of the spirit of Democracy and not the self interest of politicians who want to be re-elected) it is important to know if popular policy proposals (like cut foreign aid) are easily explained by popular misconceptions. This also goes the other way if people want something even though their missperception of the facts tends to weaken that desire, then it should be counted more. Most people in the USA want to tax the rich more. If they understood how rich the rich are and how much money could be obtained that way and how weak the evidence is that there would be serious efficiency costs etc then they’s be even more enthusiastic.
Robert Waldmann: “I don’t see why you call this poll “unscientific.” If you believe and mean to say that polls are, by definition, unscientific, the, for you “unscientific” is redundant. The correct way to write your claim would be “I don’t believe polls. I think they are unscientific.” The poll to which I linked is as scientific as any poll.”
I think that the world is full of scientific questionnaires and polls. But if this poll is scientific, it gets a B or a C.
Robert Waldmann: “I think it is easier for people to guess percentages than dollar amounts. The federal budget is huge and people don’t know how huge. Also people have trouble with huge numbers (a billion rhymes with a million).”
You may be right. However, people are lousy at estimating percentages. In fact, some apparent fallacies are related to that. For instance, if you give people a test and ask them what percentage of questions they got right, they overestimate the percentage. But if you ask them how many questions they got right, they do not overestimate. Large sums of money may be harder for people to estimate than percentages, even if you give people a reference number, I don’t know. Has any research been done on that?
Robert Waldmann: “I see you don’t see the value in asking people to guess facts.”
Actually, I do. But the poll also asked for policy opinions. I addressed that aspect. Sorry if I was not clear. They could have asked people to guess facts, and then told them the right answer before asking for their policy opinions, instead of confounding the two.
Suppose someone believes that the US gov’t spends 10% of the budget on foreign aid, and thinks that that is too much. Then, when asked, the person says that the gov’t should spend less. (Note the lack of specificity in the question.) The person actually thinks that the gov’t should spend around 4% on foreign aid. If, before being asked about policy, the person had been informed that less than 1% of the Federal budget goes to foreign aid, then the person would (probably) say that we should spend more on foreign aid.
I said probably because of anchor effects. That is, if the person thinks that the US spends 10% on foreign aid, that number attracts, as it were, the person’s opinion of what we should spend. Even if the person thinks that we should spend less, the opinion will be higher than if the person thought that the US spends 8%. So when the person who thinks that we should spend 4%, based on the belief that we spend 10%, learns that we spend less than 1%, then the person may decide that we should spend 2%.
In any event, note the difference in reporting. Instead of saying that people believe that we should spend less on foreign aid, CNN might have to report that people believe that we should spend more. It avoids having to do that by not asking for specific policy opinions.
Do you see why I say that the poll is unscientific?
Robert Waldman: “I find polling on questions of fact very interesting (obviously I blogged about it). For one thing it is quite rare. There are many polls on whether this or that budget should be increased and very few asking what the budget is. I think it is important for CNN for example to assess public knowledge. It is a measure of their job performance (horrible).”
I agree that it is a measure of their job performance. Why did the headline say that the public flunked the budget IQ test? Why not something like, “Media fail to inform public about budget”?
“Which does not mean they are stupid.” str
That’s an arguable point. If not stupid certainly ignorant to their own detriment. Don’t go by your observations of those in your “small circle of friends.” There are lots of others to wear the mantle of misunderstanding their own lot in life. While IQ scores are not always indicative of individual ability they do tell us some thing about groups. Think of it this way. By definition the average IQ score is 100-110, 50% under and 50% over. That’s an awful lot of people scoring below 100 and that’s a very easy score to obtain. It doesn’t take much. Like, what is the color of Washington’s white horse? And if you think that’s demeaning you should recall the lady who cried “Keep your government hands off of my Medicare.” Or was it Social Security. You get the idea.
Too many people understand the world from the perspective of their own llimited environment and experiences. They accept information aboout the world so long as it fits easily into their own frames of reference that have been constructed from those limited experiences. Yes, many do go beyond those limits, but we’re not talking about the results of individual actions. We’re trying to understand the actions of Americans as they act as a group. And entire group understanding of the world is limited by the lowest common denominators in the group. If you work in technology, academia, engineering, science, etc. you don’t know that base level of understanding. You don’t know the 100-110 IQ individual. Although there are an increasing number who seem to have been elected to the congress.
“Most Americans have real jobs and don’t get to sit around thinking about public policy and studying economics.”
I have a real job and I don’t sit around thinking about public policy and studying economics. But I vote, and I believe people with real jobs who vote ought to have a rudimentary sense of how tax money is being spent.
The American public has been poorly informed for decades…
No secret that U.S. MSM is more than questionable
Budget questions are problematic so long as
so many respondents assume the national
to be only an expanded household.
Although there is hegemonic influence, this holds for more than
just the U.S.
“Most Americans have real jobs and don’t get to sit around thinking about public policy and studying economics.”
Have you *seen* the employment to population ratio? Nearly half of us aren’t doing anything right now. And think of all the time working Americans spend on frivilous nonsense – reality TV, the Da Vinci Code, sports, et cetera.
The truth is probably that they think paying the slightest amount of attention to public policy – that is to say, the least they can do as citizens – is boring. So they choose not to.