It is a well-known fact among budget analysts that Americans have long had cognitive dissonance about government spending. They say they want it cut and for government to be smaller. But when questioned about specific programs, people mostly oppose cutting just about anything and often favor increases. Foreign aid is the only program that they consistently favor cutting, perhaps because they grossly overestimate its share of the budget. Recent polls confirm these observations and raise serious questions about whether there is any possible way of getting the political support for reducing the deficit and stabilizing the debt.
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A Jan. 25, 2011, CNN/Opinion Research poll found a strong 71 percent of people want to reduce the size of government. When questioned about specifics, foreign aid again topped the list, with 81 percent favoring cuts. But only two other programs got majority support; 61 percent of people would cut the pensions of government workers and 56 percent would cut welfare programs. Large majorities oppose cuts in veterans’ benefits (85 percent oppose cutting), Medicare (81 percent), Social Security (78 percent), education (75 percent), Medicaid (70 percent), aid to the unemployed and public works (both 61 percent). People were roughly split on defense.
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One possible explanation for these results is that people really don’t know the composition of government spending. For example:
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A Nov. 30, 2010, poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that when people were asked what percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the mean (average) response was 27 percent and the median was 25 percent. When asked how much of the budget should go to foreign aid, the mean response was 13 percent and the median was 10 percent. Actual spending is well under 1 percent. And these figures are not anomalous; a 2001 poll found roughly the same results.
A Nov. 18, 2010, Pew poll asked people which of these four programs the government spent the most on: national defense, education, Medicare or interest on the debt. Only 39 percent correctly answered national defense. The second most common answer was interest on the debt, with 23 percent of people ranking it first. In fact, spending for interest is well less than half that spent on Medicare, which 15 percent of people ranked first. Education spending is the budget function with the lowest spending, but 4 percent of people thought it was the largest. More Republicans underestimated defense spending than Democrats, which may help explain the former’s consistent support for higher defense spending. Republicans also were more likely to overestimate interest on the debt, which may help explain why they tend to be more vocal than Democrats on balancing the budget and reducing the national debt.