Most voters know almost nothing about the federal budget: Few can correctly answer basic questions about how much it spends, how and whom it taxes, and how much is spent on different parts of the budget. On average, for example, surveys shows that on average respondents estimate that anywhere 10 to 25 percent of the federal budget is devoted to foreign aid. In fact, it’s closer to 1 percent. A CNN poll last year found that Americans believe that about 5 percent of the federal budget is devoted to public broadcasting. The reality? It’s about 0.1 percent.
This presents obvious challenges to budget reform: If voters don’t understand the reality of public finances, it’s difficult to make the case for necessary changes. But that can be remedied. Reason Senior Editor Peter Suderman writes that anyone who wants to get a sense of how the budget works—and how it doesn’t—would do well to David Wessel’s new book, Red Ink: Inside the High Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget. Wessel, a Pullitzer Prize winning columnist and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is a clear and knowledgable guide to the way Washington goes about the business of spending, taxing, and borrowing. And while his book doesn’t quite deliver on the drama promised in the subtitle, it does offer a concise and balanced primer on the federal budget’s history, structure, and long-term problems.