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Smart People, Stupid People, and Budget Politics


Doing policy work in Washington, I tend to be around people who are highly educated and think of themselves as very intelligent. Many of them think of ordinary Americans as being stupid and ill-informed. After all, they understand little about politics and the government; in their view this reflects a lack of intelligence.2011 CNN poll found that the typical person thought foreign aid accounted for 10 percent of the budget. The actual number is less than 1 percent. They thought public broadcasting accounted for 5 percent of the budget. The actual number is 0.012 percent. There were several other items where the typical person overestimated spending levels by a factor of 100 or more. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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Blame the media font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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The same is true for other categories of government spending. People hear huge numbers and think that programs involve lots of money, because to them these sums would be lots of money. They are not in a position to assess the importance of a program to the federal budget.

This raises the obvious question: Why don't reporters express spending as a share of the total budget? Most people understand percentages. If they heard a reporter say the appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was just over 0.01 percent of federal spending, they would know that this is not a very big item in the budget. fool Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman about the size of the Republicans' proposed cut to food stamps by not making it clear that the number was for 10 years and not one year. If Paul Krugman can be misled by budget reporting, does anyone really believe that a typical reader is being accurately informed?

There is no excuse for not expressing budget items as a share of the total budget in every article where they are discussed. The purpose of the news media is to inform, and it is not accomplishing this purpose now. This is a shift that requires zero money or training. (The Center for Economic and Policy Research has a budget calculator that allows the calculation to be done in seconds.) There is no one employed as a reporter at a major news outlet who would have any trouble using percentages in their pieces, if this was the standard. font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
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