Do Americans Know Anything About the Budget?

Americans: smarter than you thought?

That's the conclusion from this Zogby poll that asked respondents to guesstimate the percentage of big components of the budget, like Social Security, Defense and foreign aid. Here's the graph, from Reason:

Even one penny on every dollar is too much to spend on international aid.

What do we learn here? A couple things:

1) Americans are famous for overestimating our international aid. One study found that the average American estimates that a quarter of the budget -- more than Social Security, or Defense -- goes to aid abroad. This is why, when asked about cutting the deficit, an outsized number always suggests that we should immediately start slashing foreign aid to save money. Of course, this would be a bit like wiping your brow with a kerchief to fight a fever. Aid is less than one percent of our total budget, but three-fourths of Americans in the Zogby poll think it's at least six times higher.

2) Non-defense discretionary spending is a really confusing phrase that sounds like it should be a lot, but it isn't. This is because Defense and entitlements alone take up almost 2/3rds of the budget. Reason writer Tim Cavanaugh says "it's not surprising that gimmicks like the spending freeze haven't moved many hearts," but I don't know that he's right. Almost 40% of Americans think non-defense discretionary spending is more than 20 percent. Do they mean something closer to 21% or 51%? I can't know for sure, but the small number of respondents that put our discretionary figure at  "11%-15%" suggests most of think that number is much higher than 15%.

3) We're pretty good on Medicare & Medicaid and assistance to low-income families.

4) We still think the budget can hold everything. Zogby concludes that most adults "come close" on components of the budget. I slightly disagree. A plurality of respondents said Americans spend more than 20 percent of the budget of Social Security, and Defense, and Medicare & Medicaid, and Debt Interest, and Non-defense discretionary spending. We also overestimated on international aid and the education. In fact, the only thing Americans arguably did not overestimate was assistance to low-income families.

This chart is closer to reasonable than I might have expected. But it still shows that Americans think about items in the budget the way children think about clowns in a clown car, or my mom thinks about winter coats in our hallway closet: there's hardly a limit to how much we can fit in there!

Update: Bruce Bartlett emails an good observation. The Zogby percentage options stop at >20%, but "had higher options been available I think some of the more sensible results would have turned out to be crazy." Given that a plurality of respondents were high-balling many of these budget components already, I'd agree.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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