Polls Lie About Votes

In a poll last month, 848 US folk gave a median guess of 25% for “what percentage of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.” In 2009, US “bilateral foreign aid” was 0.6%. The survey’s median “appropriate percentage of the federal budget to go to foreign aid” was 10%. Polls have found similar answers for many decades. (more; HT Rob Wiblin)

Jason Kuznicki comments:

Clearly, then, it’s not enough. But just you try running on a pro-foreign aid platform. Yeah, that’s a winner.

But if the public actually believed what they said, that 10% should go to foreign aid, pro-more-foreign-aid would be a winning platform when combined with explaining how low is the current fraction. Yet politicians clearly believe otherwise, or they’d eagerly adopt such a platform. The obvious conclusion: in polls the public lies about how much foreign aid they’ll support via votes. Voters don’t want to hear about the true fraction of foreign aid, and will punish a politician who shames them by showing how little aid they give, and that they don’t want to give more.

An interesting meta conclusion: votes are not treated the same as polls. We’ll support some policies in polls that we won’t support by votes. This seems a challenge for Bryan Caplan’s view that we treat votes and polls similarly, since both have weak personal consequences re influencing the outcome.

Of course a better test here would be a poll that first informed voters of the true fraction of foreign aid, and then asked them what fraction would be appropriate. I’d bet that if a survey did this immediately after the above two survey questions, poll respondents would say they want more aid.  But without this immediate framing, I’m not sure.

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  • http://whyiamnot.wordpess.com Salem

    Of course a better test here would be a poll that first informed voters of the true fraction of foreign aid, and then asked them what fraction would be appropriate. I’d bet that if the survey did this immediately after the above two survey questions, poll respondents would say they want more aid.

    On the other hand, it is implied the public think that foreign aid is 150% too high.

    More generally though, of course single-issue polls, which express preferences, are different to multiple-issue votes, which necessitate trade-offs. The public are not lying about how much foreign aid they’ll support; the poll effectively asks if they want to give lots of foreign aid at no cost, so of course the answer is yes. I am willing to bet that if you repeat that poll for every area of government, the sum of the %s will be way, way over 100% (and probably over 200%). The public is not lying when it says it wants a free pony – but it doesn’t follow that it will buy one.

    If you actually want to get an idea of what people will vote for, much better is to make the poll list all the areas of government spending, and have respondents mark down next to each one what the % of spending should be. That way there is an implied tradeoff, and these really will sum to (roughly) 100%.

    • http://VentrueCapital.blogspot.com John Fast

      Thanks, Salem, you just justified the main project I’m doing for my Ph.D. dissertation. Specifically, it’s a poll which asks (for each of several government programs) “Do you favor more spending, less spending, or about the same, if any change in spending will be matched by a change in (A) taxes, (B) the deficit, or (C) spending on other programs?”

      “The public are not lying about how much foreign aid they’ll support; the poll effectively asks if they want to give lots of foreign aid at no cost, so of course the answer is yes.”

      Thanks, you also explained the first part of what I call the “Greenfield Paradox.” The reason polls say voters want more spending is that it’s presented without any cost or trade-off. Bryan Caplan claims that voters can’t be stupid enough not to realize the cost, but that’s a pretty ironic position for someone who invented the term “rational irrationality” and wrote _The Myth of the Rational Voter_.

      The other half of the Greenfield Paradox is that even when asked about trade-offs, most voters believe that the budget can be balanced without cutting taxes just by “cutting waste.” As both Jeff Greenfield and John T. Reed point out, while it’s entirely possible that 40% of the federal budget is wasted, it’s very difficult to identify the waste and politically difficult to eliminate it.

      The question is, What Is To Be Done?

  • http://danieltarmac.blogspot.com/ Henry

    It’s possible that the public is reasonably aware of the absolute value of what the government spends on foreign aid, but they underestimate much of the rest of the budget. Thus, when they say they 10% of the budget spent on foreign aid, they may at least partially be doing so on the basis that the budget is smaller than they think.

    • http://andyhallman.wordpress.com Andy Hallman

      It’s possible that the public is reasonably aware of the absolute value of what the government spends on foreign aid, but they underestimate much of the rest of the budget.

      Well, I guess that theory’s possible, but I think it’s odd that the amount of the foreign aid budget is the only thing they know, and that they have no idea about the size of the much bigger budget items or the size of the whole budget. I suppose that scenario may occur if the pollster supplied them with only the size of the aid budget and nothing else, leaving them to guess about all the other numbers.

      However, I think it’s more likely that voters are biased against foreign aid, based on survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 1996 Survey of Americans and Economists on the Economy.

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  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    The general public has no idea what terms like “25%” and “10%” mean, never mind the magnitude of actual dollars spent or even what “federal budget” even means. A simple way to interpret these polling results is:

    Q: How much do we spend on Foreign Aid?
    A: Probably too much

    Q: How much should we spend?
    A: Probably a lot less.

  • Doug Winter

    Isn’t this just an issue of polls not being secret in the same way as a vote? There is a significant personal consequence in polls, in not wanting to appear to be a dick to someone else.

    This is in fact a much more significant consequence than your actual vote, since your actual vote has negligible impact on the outcome of the election.

    If there were a methodology for secret polling in the same way we handle votes, I wonder if people would respond more honestly.

  • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

    “The obvious conclusion: in polls the public lies about how much foreign aid they’ll support via votes. Voters don’t want to hear about the true fraction of foreign aid, and will punish a politician who shames them by showing how little aid they give, and that they don’t want to give more.”

    I think you nailed it. It would be nice to see a comprehensive treatment on this, in terms of the major populations of the world, and of course the united states, looking at what populations claim to support and what they don’t want to know. I guess the formula is something like “I think society gives A to cause X. I claim to support society only giving smaller amount B to cause X. I implicitly don’t want to find out that society actually gives even smaller amount C to cause X because I both want to feel like cause X receives too much and that I still want a decent amount of money to go to cause X.

  • http://www.uncrediblehallq.net/ Chris Hallquist

    Clearly, someone need to introduce a ballot initiative in California to allow people to directly vote on spending 10% of California’s budget on foreign aid, to provide a more direct test of Robin’s hypothesis.

    Seriously, this is the test to make. Anyone who knows anything about California will realize that the policies produced by elected representatives are different than the ones that result when people can vote directly on policies.

  • Andrew Berman

    I think the public is more correct than everyone here assumes.
    However the question was worded, the public is probably including their impression of military spending in their calculations. Agree with them or not, wouldn’t it be rational for people to consider our Iraqi involvement a form of ‘foreign aid?’ And how much do we spend yearly to keep the Pacific shipping lanes free, not to mention South Korea?

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      A. Berman,
      I’m already familiar with that line of reasoning (that military spending is a form of foreign aid). It’s sufficientlywidespread as a standard B argument that I assumed this poll study built in a distinction to account for it. If it didn’t, then the whole poll study would constitute a slow-pitch to folks like you that glom to this type of argument.

      Personally I think it’s more of a push-narrative than a good faith best assessment of what the public considers to be foreign aid. It reminds me of how people try to reframe Palin’s latest intellectual stumble into some more sophisticated, coherent intellectual framework.

  • http://offbooze@blogspot.com offbooze

    To add to A. Berman’s point, the public may think that the US provides a higher level of foreign aid overall, i.e. non-governmental, than other countries, which is undoubtedly true.

  • http://randomwalker.info/ Arvind Narayanan

    A much more plausible conclusion is that most of the population is innumerate.

  • Robert Koslover

    Might one very simple explanation (despite it likely being absolutely astonishing to all you highly-educated folks, if true) be the following possibility: perhaps a (painfully) sizable number of people make no meaningful distinction between the terms “foreign aid” and “foreign trade,” i.e., they may perceive the question as being about purchases of goods and services from foreign countries, or perhaps even the amount of the national debt held by foreign countries. After all, they know they personally buy a LOT of products made in China, Japan, Mexico, etc. And they even may think that those purchases count as “foreign aid.” Did anyone actually ask them about that?

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      We still have to explain their high percentage belief in UFO’s, angels, and what-not.

  • David C

    There’s another possible explanation. Voters don’t trust politicians, so they won’t bother learning any facts from them. Any time a politician has to explain facts about an issue before he gets to his opinion, he’s going to lose. His opponent will just ignore the facts and cut straight to the opinion; plastering it all over TV ads. Facts are only useful to make a politician seem intelligent. During an election is the worst time to try and change voters minds about an issue.

  • UserGoogol

    There are a lot of plausible counterexplanations, most of which have already been given. I like the “people don’t actually understand math/the scale of the budget/the nature of government/etc” explanations more than the explanation you give. More specifically, the not understanding math part helps them fail to see the problem in holding contradictory numerical views. Also, people probably have a hard sense of how much it exactly costs to run a government, in part again for the numeracy reason that they have hard trouble telling the difference between millions and trillions. Also, even if they genuinely think that the foreign aid should be a larger number than it actually is (although less than they think it is) when this is actually implemented into practice this might conflict with other things they also value.

    Also: people do sometimes lie to pollsters, and this is something that has been quite firmly verified, but the assumption that if people were sincerely expressing their preferences that suitable politicians would meet those preferences seems like an overoptimistic reading of the political system. Politicians exist within political parties, and political parties exist within quasi-cohesive ideological groupings. So from a political side things are hard.

    And actual politicians have to work within the framework of actual policy tradeoffs. Politicians still TRY to have it both ways, but when they sit down and write legislation they end up having to deal with the practical details in ways that the uninformed voter is unaware. For instance, health care reform tended to poll very well until the Democrats actually had to actually write it. There are other reasons for that too, but it all plays into the same thing. It takes a lot of steps to get from voter desire to actual policy.

  • jonny bakho

    A LOT of people consider troops stationed on foreign soil (South Korea for instance) to be a form of “Foreign Aid”. It is not our dollars direct, but it is “payment in kind” aid. The US is taking on responsibilities so the domestic tax dollars of those countries are spared.

    There is a lot of support for reducing our overseas presence.

  • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

    But if the public actually believed what they said, that 10% should go to foreign aid,

    The 10% could just be a conservative position. If you believe that 25% of the budget goes to something you might not want to risk pushing the politicians to slash it to .06%, just too radical who knows what would happen, so you say I want it to be 10%.

    Another thought: Some naive people might see that action in Iraq and Afghanistan as foreign aid.

    • idiot

      Naive? Considering that money is being spent outside of the US to “aid” other foreign countries, I’d consider that a form of foreign aid, and would be shocked to see Iraq and Afghanistan NOT included in the total foreign aid given.

      (That being said, by foreign aid, I mean non-‘military spending’ in Iraq/Afghanistan.)

  • Robert Speirs

    The naifs are the ones who think that “foreign aid” ever helps anyone except foreign dictators and NGO and State Department staff. What people really want to know is why we should be sending any aid to foreigners at all and whether it does any good at all. And the assertion that it does should be accompanied by overwhelming proof. Without such proof, “foreign aid” is no better than any other government spending that doesn’t help those who elected the government. What possible rational basis could it have?

  • http://www.bible-researcher.com Michael Marlowe

    The prediction that “poll respondents would say they want more aid” if the survey informs them of the facts would almost certainly fail. The wildly wrong estimate of 25% for current expenses should be interpreted merely as a way of expressing the notion that “far too much” is spent on foreign aid. And in conjunction with this, the recommendation of 10% would mean simply “less than half of what we now spend.”

  • Jonathan

    I think you’re misreading the results. The question about current foreign aid levels anchors people, and the subsequent question about the proper level ignored this. What most respondents are saying is not, “I wish they’d spend 10% on foreign aid” but, “I wish they’d *only* spend 10% on foreign aid.”. They think 10% is an achievable compromise.

    Here’s a similar poll you could conduct that I think would demonstrate I’m correct. First, ask people what percentage of their income they pay in taxes at all levels. Second, ask them what they’d like that number to be. Every person with a non-zero answer was compromising.

  • mike

    It’s astonishing how little people know about the federal budget. I am grateful to my high school government teacher for showing us the pie chart, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Most people I’ve talked to aren’t even aware that we pay interest on the national debt. And these are people with post-graduate degrees! How can anyone get through high school without learning this?

  • Sean

    Given the title of this blog, I’d think you’d draw a different “obvious conclusion”: that those polled were biased by their previous answer. As Jonathan said, they anchor to it and base their second response on what they think should be, relative to the first response.

    As an undergrad, I was a subject in a psych study that examined almost exactly this. You were given a set of poll questions like “what percentage of pregnancies result in abortion?” with the immediate follow-up, “what percentage of pregnancies should result in abortion?” After completing all of those, you were given another set of questions, which gave you the actual percentages (or so they claimed…), followed by a repetition of the follow-up questions.

    It was kind of shocking how wildly my answers changed given the new information.

    • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

      I’m not sure this detracts from Prof. Hanson’s OP, but it’s a good reminder in this thread.