When it comes to policy, the political class doesn’t have a lot of faith in the public’s IQ. In the latest National Journal Political Insiders Poll, a solid majority of political operatives – 59 percent – said the public didn’t “know enough about the issues facing Washington to form wise opinions about what should be done.” There was a sharp partisan difference between the two parties: By more than a 2-to-1 margin, Democratic Insiders believed the public didn’t “know enough,” while a slight majority of Republicans thought they did.
As happens so often, Republicans are engaging in wishful thinking. A recent poll by CNN, for instance, found what Steve Benen rightly calls “astounding public confusion about the budget“:
Americans, for example, think about 10% of the budget goes to “aid to foreign countries for international development and humanitarian assistance.” The actual number is about 1%.…
Respondents think 10% of the budget goes to “food and nutrition assistance for the poor,” 7% goes to “housing assistance for the poor,” and 10% goes to federal funding to education. None of these figures are even close to being right — federal spending in all of these areas is a small fraction of what the public perceives. (We should be so lucky as to have so much investment in public programs and a strong safety net.)
And best of all, the CNN poll also asked whether existing funding levels should go up or down in all of these areas. My personal favorite: nearly two-thirds of the country believes federal spending on education should go up, and that’s after those same Americans have roughly quadrupled in their minds what the feds actually spend in this area.
I wonder what the public reaction would be if voters learned that House Republicans want to make massive cuts to Head Start, Pell grants, and Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty).
Talking Points Memo digs deeper, and finds that shortly after Congress voted to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Americans believe the CPB gets roughly 5% of the federal budget, about $178 billion. In fact:
The CPB received about $420 million last year from the federal government, making it roughly 0.01, or one-tenth of one percent, of the overall budget. That means that the median response was about 424 times higher than the actual amount of federal funding that went to public broadcasting last year.
Further, 20% of respondents thought CPB funding made up over 10% of the entire budget, including 5% who said it made up at least half.
Yes, one in twenty Americans think that half the federal budget goes to NPR and PBS. They presumably think the other half is divided between foreign aid and welfare, leaving no room for defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt. Those last 5 items actually accounted for about $2.5 trillion of the roughly $3.5 trillion spent in 2010. No one has an excuse for thinking that anything else makes up a majority of the budget.