Budget Delusions.

Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan ran for president assuring people that he could balance the federal budget just by locating and purging all the "waste, fraud, and abuse" in federal spending. While there is certainly plenty of each, finding them never seems to have the magical effects everyone supposes. But it plays into the belief many Americans have that much of the budget is just unnecessary, and we could easily be rid of it.

And if you ask them, it turns out people have some rather odd ideas about what's actually in the budget. The Program on International Policy Attitudes gives us some new data:

Asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid the median estimate is 25 percent. Asked how much they thought would be an "appropriate" percentage the median response is 10 percent.

In fact just 1 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. Even if one only includes the discretionary part of the federal budget, foreign aid represents only 2.6 percent.

Think about that -- the median response was 25 percent. So half of the respondents thought it was more. PIPA didn't release the distribution, but I'd imagine a healthy proportion of the public thinks we spend half the federal budget on foreign aid.

This may be the single most important fact about public opinion regarding the budget: Most Americans think that much if not most of the money the federal government spends goes to things they don't like and people they don't like, whether it's wasteful pork or foreigners or lazy welfare recipients. So when you tell them we have to start slashing government, they think, "Sounds great -- it certainly won't affect me!"

-- Paul Waldman

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