Political Ignorance and Federal Spending

Although federal spending was a major political issue in the 2010 campaign and for many months before it, this recently released CBS poll [HT: Dan Mitchell] reveals widespread public ignorance about the distribution of spending between various programs. The detailed data reveal that only 23% know that Medicare and Medicaid take up between 20 and 30% of federal spending, and only 15% realize that Social Security takes up between 20 and 30%. Some 48% underestimate the extent of Social Security spending, with a much smaller percentage overstating it. Similarly, only 23% recognize that defense spending takes up between 20% and 30% of the budget. In this case, the most common error is to overestimate the extent of spending (a mistake made by 42%). Defense, Social Security, and Medicare/Medicaid, are by far the three largest items in the federal budget. And the vast majority of Americans don’t know how much of the federal budget is spent on them. Even if we count as “correct” answers that are close to the truth (on the grounds that all three programs are right around 20%, so both 10 to 20% and 20 to 30% might potentially be correct), the large majority still doesn’t know the answer in all three cases.

The majority overestimates the percentage of federal spending that goes to foreign aid, welfare, and earmarks. For example, only 9% realize that foreign aid is less than 5% of the federal budget, while 67% believe that it is higher than that, including 48% who believe that the true figure is a whopping 10% or more.

Knowing approximately how much federal spending goes to which program is not enough to have a reasonably informed discussion on spending policy. But it’s probably a necessary prerequisite to doing so. Therefore, it’s noteworthy that the majority of the public is ignorant on these points, despite the extensive public debate over the issue over the last two years.

This result is, of course, in line with previous data showing widespread public ignorance on a wide range of issues. As I have argued elsewhere, it is in fact rational for most voters to make little or no effort to acquire political information, because the chance of influencing electoral outcomes is so low. Few people find the details of federal spending policy interesting, and there is little incentive to learn about them just to be a better voter. Political ignorance is individually rational behavior that leads to bad collective outcomes. Voters may have a duty to become informed, but if so few take that obligation seriously.

It is tempting instead to blame politicians and the media for the extent of public ignorance on these issues. Certainly, politicians often talk about spending in very vague terms, and pretend that we can cut the deficit without touching entitlement programs or defense. No doubt, the media is also often uninformative. However, it is still easy for people to get accurate data on federal spending if they were so inclined. A quick google search turns up several easy to use sites such as this one and this one. It’s also not hard to find think tank studies, newspaper and magazine articles, and other information sources that discuss the budget in an accessible way.

Moreover, to the extent that politicians and the media don’t provide more information on spending, it is largely because they are responding to voter and consumer demand. If TV news viewers wanted more programs discussing the details of the federal budget, TV and radio news stations would be happy to provide it. It would be cheaper to produce than much of their current programming. Similarly, if voters punished at the polls politicians who fail to discuss budget specifics, more candidates would do so. In reality, of course, politicians are more likely to be rewarded at the polls for avoiding discussion of specific budget cuts than for embracing it. Doing the latter will earn them the ire of organized interest groups, while getting little reward from the general public. And TV news executives know that most viewers prefer entertainment to stories on the budget. In sum, politicians and the media are primarily responding to and exploiting public ignorance, rather than creating it. They may exacerbate the problem, but they didn’t cause it.

UPDATE: To my mind, the good news in the CBS poll is that it partly refutes the conventional wisdom that the public wants to cut spending in general, but opposes cuts in specific programs. Substantial majorities say they are willing to cut Social Security benefits for “retirees with higher incomes,” farm subsidies, defense spending, and money for “projects in your community.” There is a statistical dead heat (45% in favor, 48% against) on eliminating the mortgage interest deduction. The public isn’t nearly as willing to cut spending as I would prefer. But it is not correct to say that they oppose cuts in all important programs.

Of course the fact that a majority is willing to support cuts in these areas does not necessarily mean that any will actually be enacted. Social Security, farm subsidies, defense spending, and porkbarrel grants all have strong interest group constituencies behind them, which may be able to prevail against poorly organized majority public opinion.