The Wall Street Journal on Public Ignorance About Federal Spending

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on widespread public ignorance about federal spending [HT: Andrew Varcoe]:

Many Americans have strong opinions about policy issues shaping the presidential campaign, from immigration to Social Security. But their grasp of numbers that underlie those issues can be tenuous.

Americans vastly overestimate the percentage of fellow residents who are foreign-born, by more than a factor of two, and the percentage who are in the country illegally, by a factor of six or seven. They overestimate spending on foreign aid by a factor of 25, according to a 2010 survey. And more than two-thirds of those who responded to a 2010 Zogby online poll underestimated the part of the federal budget that goes to Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid.

“It’s pretty apparent that Americans routinely don’t know objective facts about the government,” says Joshua Clinton, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.

Americans’ numerical misapprehension can be traced to a range of factors, including where they live, the news they consume, the political rhetoric they hear and even the challenges of numbers themselves. And it isn’t even clear how much this matters: Telling people the right numbers often doesn’t change their views.

These are not new findings. I wrote about earlier survey data with similar results here and here. Despite the growing fiscal crisis that has emerged over the last few years, most of the public knows very little about federal spending.

The article suggests that this ignorance may not matter much because the majority of survey respondents don’t change their minds about policy priorities even when presented with correct information. It is certainly true that people are slow to change their minds about political issues, often even rejecting outright any data that conflicts with their preexisting views. In general, however, people with higher levels of political knowledge have much different views on many issues than those with low levels, even after controlling for partisanship, race, gender, income, and many other background variables. Knowing one key fact about the budget may not change your mind. But being generally knowledgeable about federal spending may well lead you to have different views from otherwise similar people who are mostly ignorant about it. Moreover, on some key issues where the balance of political power is close, there could be important effects on policy even if only five or ten percent of voters change their minds.

In this case, the public’s failure to understand that entitlements and defense constitute the lion’s share of federal spending probably makes them more reluctant to consider cuts in these areas. Conversely, the belief that foreign aid and payments to illegal immigrants are much greater than they actually are lead voters to focus their ire on these issues far more than is warranted.