Americans Not Totally Clueless About Government Spending


Zogby has a Family Feud-type poll in which respondents are asked to give a factual estimate of known statistics. How well can people guess the spending percentages in the federal budget?

Better than you might have expected. Although there were traditional overestimates such as the foreign aid budget, majorities of the 2,068 people polled were in or near the ballpark on defense and Medicare/Medicaid, and a large minority was close enough for government work on Social Security:

Even one penny on every dollar is too much to spend on international aid.

The large number of respondents overestimating the portion of the budget that goes to debt service may indicate why a fiscal hawk message continues to resonate with voters even as Keynesians say not to worry about deficit spending. And with half of respondents grasping that non-defense discretionary spending is less than 20 percent of the total, it's not surprising that gimmicks like the spending freeze haven't moved many hearts.

NEXT: Nathaniel Branden's Original Objectivism Lectures, Now in Print

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  1. Look, I--Tom, the one thing I'm sure of is that the American people don't know or care much about the sequencing of parliamentary procedures. They want an up or down vote after a yearlong debate to bring this to a close.

    1. Also, we want a cookie.

      1. Several cookies! At least three!

        1. Government-issued cookies! At a million dollars a box!

  2. Actually, I don't think this is very impressive. I would expect to see data like this if half of people were utterly clueless, and the other half had a vague idea that we spend a lot on defense, SS, and health care, and don't spend much on international aid or education (at the federal level).

    Also, it seems that the average person's responses add up to more than 100%! If you look at where the middle of each budget item's estimate lies, and add them up, you get something around 115%, assuming than >20% = 21%.

    1. Chad, do you think that Charlie Sheen has gotten to old for his role on Two and a Half Men?

    2. That's because every "average person" doesn't perfectly overlap with the average estimates for each spending category- some estimated higher or lower than others.

      Everyone already knows you suck at analyzing data. You should really have your PHD revoked, but academics don't really care about stuff like that so you won't.

      1. Chad does not have a Ph.D.

        1. that's right. It's *Tony* that has a PhD.

          1. Nope, I believe it is MNG that makes that claim.

      2. Apparently you aren't getting what I am saying. Think about it this way.

        The concensus spending on SS and M+M is about 20% each. The consensus spending on defense, interest, and discretionary is greater than 20% each. The consensus on the other three items is 3-7% each. You do the math.

        1. Chad, do you find Friends reruns as tiresome as I do? Can you believe we liked that show once? Those crazy, carefree 90s.

          1. I could go for some pie.

        2. I fucking get what you are saying. Just because the consensus adds up to greater than 100%, doesn't necessarily mean the average person divided up more than 100% of the budget. And the consensus isn't significantly higher than 100% anyway, since the respondents were estimating the approximate range of the percentage of the budget that each category uses.

          1. Um, CA, you may want to work on your grade-school math. The average cannot be greater than 100% unless the average person's response was as well.

            1. PLAY FREEBIRD!
              PLAY FREEBIRD!

            2. And therefore, the average people are stupid. Therefore, they should shut up and do what they're told.

            3. "Average person" is a misleading concept. The median person didn't have to make a mistake for there to be an average mistake.

              If almost everyone chose answers adding up to 100%, but one dumbass (let's call him "Chad") put 20+% in everything, then the average could be greater than 100. But it doesn't say anything about the majority of people.

            4. Chad, I noticed that too--I'm sure many people's responses added up to more than 100%, but you have to consider that they were giving ballpark estimates, not allotting 100 widgets among 8 categories.

    3. You're assuming that the "don't knows" were "don't know" for many responses, and that the proper thing to do is to assign "don't knows" the average of the rest of the category's results.

      Overall, people basically got them in the right order, except for overestimating defense nondiscretionary some, underestimating Social Security, and somewhat overestimating foreign aid.

      1. If I assign them to the "average", then they don't affect it.

    4. The actual spending numbers come out to be 102%, if they were all mutually exclusive categories - which they are not. Totaling up the mutually exclusive categories, (Defense, non-defense discretionary, social security, medicare/medicaid, interest on debt) only yields 88%. Unless they're counting 'assistance to low-income families' as non-discretionary?


        Most of the "assistance" spending is considered mandatory. You are right that the study may be double-counting education and international aid spending, but that would only result in 103%, not 115-120%.

        1. Guys,

          You're reading the chart wrong. The rows are independent of each other for all responses. Each row adds up to 100% of all responses for that budget category. Adding the columns doesn't really tell you much. If 25% of all respondents "not sure", then the not sure column would add up to 200% - arithmetically correct but meaningless in terms of the survey.

          1. +1

            Data reading fail, indeed... The columns are broken down by a range of percentages as multiple choice options. Adding up the figures in each *row* gets you the answers of 100% of respondents per question. Adding up each column tells you nothing, since it's just people answering multiple choice in a survey.

            I guess we're to expect people called up to do a Zogby poll to sit there with a calculator and work out their responses to fit an exact breakdown?

    5. Also, it seems that the average person's responses add up to more than 100%!

      I blame the shameful amount we spend on the public school system. 2% just isn't enough. (No, wait, maybe I'm thinking about milk.)

      Actually, spending more that one hundred percent has gotten us into this situation in the first place.

    6. But if you actually do the math on the entire chart, not just guesstimating and handwaving, you get a total of about 84%, plus 'Not Sure', a perfectly reasonable result.

      I got this by multiplying each percentage in the table by the lower bound of the stated range, to give benefit of the doubt.

  3. I think somebody owes James Surowiecki a shout-out.

  4. Cut discretionary spending by ten percent, apply it to interest on the debt. Boom, two percent more spending to bring down the debt, one less worry.

    Chad will disagree, of course.

  5. The welfare state is now more than half the Federal budget. If anyone wants to cut the deficit, the course of action is obvious.

    1. You're right, querty - we have to make welfare spending our top priority.

      Say... seventy-five percent of the Federal budget. That'll ensure my re-election for certain.

    2. I'll Kevorkian the sick.

  6. The official "interest on debt" is meaningless since it ignores the changes in market value of the debt. Since 1982, the cost has been greater than the interest payments because of declining inflation and inflation risk premium.

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    1. You are a shitty bot. Your site doesn't link. Your name doesn't link. You just repeat yourself over and over, bad bot. And, why do you need to scream SITE, do you have tourettes? Jess would kick your ass in a bot fight. It would be like T-1000 fighting a roomba.

  8. Don't you love that fact that (at least) 52 cents of every dollar you send to the Feds goes right back out and into someone else's pocket?

    1. You will love it when it is your pocket the money lands in.

      1. Yes Chad, he will love it when he sends a dollar to the government and gets 52 cents back. Why, that's a great investment strategy. Invest a solid sum of 100,000, and he'll get 52,000 back. This must be how Gates makes all of his money.

    2. Yeah, you act like you don't see any of that money, or the benefits of it. Defense spending goes into someone's pocket-either a soldier or employee of a contractor, but what you get is, well, defense. For domestic spending you get things as well, such as domestic tranquility (if people were left to starve there could be unrest, see history). For programs like Social Security or unemployment even if you are not currently drawing on them you get the peace of mind of coverage if you need it (similar to what you get when you pay auto insurance premiums but don't get into a wreck).

      Of course you might also feel you've increased justice and fairness in the society you are a part of too, but I imagine we'll differ on what those two things entail...

      1. Justice in MNG's world = treating people differently, apparently. I always thought that it was equality before the law and even-handedness in how you treated people, not dispensing special benefits at the expense of others.

        1. Fairness means people get what they deserve. Only when no one deserves anything is equality a form of fairness.

          That said, people often don't get what they deserve. Welfare programs can be a little unfair to the productive classes, but they can also mitigate the unfairness life dishes out. When the productive class vastly outweighs the welfare class, the cost is small enough per-capita that most people tend to tolerate welfare programs in moderation.

          Unfortunately, you get more of what you pay for, as they say, so it's an inherently unstable situation without strong cultural pushback against abuse and dependency.

          1. you know what else can 'mitigate the unfairness life dishes out'? Charity.

          2. you know what else can 'mitigate the unfairness life dishes out'? Charity.

    3. It's closer to 75% if you include defense contractors and the military.

  9. How much of that defense spending *should* be classified as international aid? I could not speak authoritatively, but I would bet that at least 25% of our annual budget for Afghanistan is international aid - of course, it's the form of DoD contracts, but should be considered welfare because no-bids that go to Afghani companies are practically welfare anyway.

    1. I think if the military blows up some country and then rebuilds it, or builds things in the process of occupying that nation (and before anyone hyperventilates we are occupying Afghanistan at the request of their government), then that is more military related spending than international aid. But your point is well taken.

      1. In Afghanistan, we're way past the point of rebuilding and definitely into "welfare" territory. I mean, the government is pretty blatant and open about it.

    2. Good point. Many of the assistance programs for Iraq and Afghanistan are appropriated to DoD (e.g. Afghan Security Forces Fund), so they probably are getting counted in the defense budget for a survey like this. Traditionally, most foreign aid, including foreign military aid (known as FMF/FMS, like what goes to Israel and Egypt) is appropriated to State and gets counted as foreign aid.

  10. Kant, I'd much rather my money go to another person than be used to employ government workers or buy bombs or be otherwise wasted. So that's the more benign part of the budget.

  11. Hey Max, send it to me. I'll give some to orphans and rescuing kittens.

  12. For programs like Social Security or unemployment even if you are not currently drawing on them you get the peace of mind of coverage if you need it (similar to what you get when you pay auto insurance premiums but don't get into a wreck).

    you wrote this without laughing? Social "Security" can be ended at any time by Congress, without zero compensation made toward me to what I have "paid in". And, given the projected deficit rate, I have zero confidence or "peace of mind" by the existence of that current welfare program. If SS gives you peace of mind, you're a retard.

    1. should read "with zero compensation". SS is the biggest fraud the government ever perpetrated on the populace - they call the taxes "contributions", but they are transfer payments; the government gives out "statements" that give the illusion of security in order to trick people into thinking they have an actual investment - which of course they do not, because I could die tomorrow and not see a dime of my "investment" ever go to my heirs.

      Social Security, and the lies associated with it, are revolutionary offenses, in my book.

      1. Old people used to be really poor. And there were good reasons to address that. I don't have a problem with paying tax money to make sure that those who are too old to work and don't have other assets are taken care of.

        The problem is the solution to that is a welfare program for old people. But Roosevelt didn't do that. Instead, he created the universal entitlement ponzi scheme known as social security. Now we are fucked. We can't afford to pay everyone SS. And we tax people to such an extent, people don't save for their retirements like they should. Of all of the New Deal programs, Social Security was the worst.

        1. Step 1: Means-test current recipients
          Step 2: Reduce projected benefits for those say, 45 and older due to built-in reliance on the plan.
          Step 3: Those 45 and younger pay taxes on whatever's leftover after all those cuts, but are told that they do not receive SS.
          Step 4: End program when last beneficiary dies

          1. Not going to happen.

          2. Add one more thing, MNG - all SSI benefits have to be paid out of SSI taxes.

            This thing is a transfer program. There is no lockbox. Paying part of SSI with debt/general fund revenues just hides the true cost of SSI.

            Yes, this means that SSI taxes will have to go up every year. So what? That's the true cost. If they don't like it, elect representatives who will reform it.

            1. The problem is that right now SSI pays for the general fund. So general spending looks a lot cheaper than it is.

      2. Well said Sir. +100

  13. TAO, I believe you'll find this amusing.

    1. you know, it's only government "faith healers" who think that there are more than two ways to slash debt.

      So, which is it going to be, SS lovers? Raise taxes or slash benefits?

  14. 9am and still no morning links? Did DST cause the entire Reason staff to oversleep or something?

    1. Reason staff meeting this morning, so no new posts.

      Meeting Topic: Should staff bow to The State and change the clocks for Daylight Saving Time?

      1. Considering Hawaii & all of Asia get along just fine without changing their schedules around for no damn reason, I'm a little perplexed as to why we still do it.

        1. Solution:

          Next time-change interval, set the clocks back 30 minutes - and never touch the fucking things again.

  15. Wait, the actual expenditures total 102%. I knew Education was ruining this country.

    1. Probably just due to rounding errors. A bunch of x.5s and x.6s rounded up can make it look like the total is >100%.

  16. The real problem with this survey is that the highest category is 20% or more. People who think that defense, Social Security, or Medicare-Medicaid are half or 3/4 of the budget would answer this survey correctly although being totally off, numbers-wise.

  17. I'm offended by the term "Average person"
    Isn't everyone special..?

    1. You ARE NOT a beautiful and unique snowflake.

  18. It would have been better to let them select from ten categories, from 80%. This would give some folks the opportunity to show that they really have no idea where the money goes.

    Otherwise, it's like asking a "Jaywalk All-Star" when the Peace of Westphalia was signed and giving them four dates in the 1640's. Whatever the result, you'll probably think "Hey, not bad. Only off by a few years!"

  19. And Tyler Durden, I resent your racist comment!

    ...Snowflake indeed.


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