Thursday, March 11, 2010

Where does federal spending go? - Perceptions vs. realities

Paul Waldman at TAPPED, the American Prospect blog, points to an important fact about American politics that I used to think was well known but which I now suspect is probably under-appreciated:
[T]he public is massively misinformed about what tax money goes toward, and in a particular way: They tend to overestimate the amount of money spent on programs they don't like. For instance, lots of people believe that much of the federal budget goes for welfare or for foreign aid (neither very popular), when the actual amount spent on each of those items is less than 1 percent of the budget.
(So what? You can read Waldman's proposal here.)

=> And now, to get a bit more speculative, here's a follow-up that many people might find surprising:
And when you give them the opportunity to say how they'd like their tax money spent, they give very progressive answers: Cut defense spending, but increase spending on education, medical research, and renewable energy.
Making due allowances for the complexities, uncertainties, and other mysteries of public opinion polling--including the fact that respondents often wind up expressing preferences that are mutually contradictory--that seems to be broadly right.

What's even more intriguing is that this pattern holds, to a considerable extent, even for survey respondents who describe themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative." We all know that these constituencies, along with many other Americans, say they would like to see less federal spending in general. But John Sides alerts us to a 2008 survey by the American National Election Study (ANES) that asked respondents to indicate, with respect to specific types of government programs, whether they would like to increase federal spending, decrease it, or keep it about the same. The graph below covers responses by self-described conservatives. When they were asked whether they wanted to cut back federal spending for specific types of programs, only two categories registered over 25%. (Guess which ones.) In all other categories ... well, look at the results. (To expand the graph, click here.)

conflictedconservatives revised.png

(By the way, I can't help noticing that very few of these conservative respondents wanted to cut "aid to the poor"--which may reflect well on their sense of decency-- but considerably more wanted to reduce spending on "welfare". This disparity does not surprise me.)

Again, we should bear in mind that the implications of poll results are uncertain and often mysterious. But these may be worth puzzling over. Kevin Drum interpreted these results as suggesting that, in real-world terms, most self-identified conservatives "aren't actually in favor of cutting spending on much of anything." Maybe.

--Jeff Weintraub

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