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. (
I'm not sure this detracts from Prof. Hanson's OP, but it's a good reminder in this thread.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
We still have to explain their high percentage belief in UFO's, angels, and what-not.
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.
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?
A much more plausible conclusion is that most of the population is innumerate.
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.