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Posted at 9:31 AM ET, 12/ 3/2010

American misperceptions of foreign aid spending in one graph

By Ezra Klein



By Ezra Klein  | December 3, 2010; 9:31 AM ET
Categories:  Charts and Graphs  
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Sure Ezra, but I think the general public's misconception runs both ways. This talks about relative spending.

What if the question was about absolute $'s? I'd be willing to bet that people would way undershoot the actual foreign aid spending, and they would still want it cut in half even from their underestimated level.

Put another way, I think the misconception is probably less about the amount we spend on foreign aid, and more having to do with what the total federal budget really is.

Posted by: BGPoutsideDC | December 3, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

And, if I'm not mistaken, about half of that foreign aid goes to Israel anyway. See how eager conservatives are to cut that part.

Posted by: bigmandave | December 3, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

As long as Haiti news is there and American people see Clintons and Bushes pitching for Haiti; Americans will continue to have this impression.

Haiti is a classic example of what is wrong:
- first of all that country is so thoroughly screwed up because of their own people, their own leaders and their own deeds;
- America and international donors have been trying to help it for so many years and there is no result which deepens impression about what is wrong there;
- finally what we have seen is anytime these 'big foot print' donation money overwhelms these smaller countries, corruption increases and ability of the country to move on the sustained path is not improved. These donations need not be only peaceful involvement, but like military money as in case of Afghanistan. It is well established that American torrent of military money & expenditure (direct aid or even direct spending on American boots in Afghanistan); that causes total destabilization of the local/native economy.

This is essentially Heisenberg Principle of Foreign Aid - any time any external wealth moves in (peaceful or military); native ability to climb sustainable growth path gets destabilized and nothing comes out. Add to that inability of American & European Foreign Establishment to 'stomp out corruption'. I mean it is so obvious that Obama should have kicked out Karzai for his corruption long ago and Obama should have adopted 'zero tolerance for corruption there'. But American Presidents - Dems or GOP or Hillary - they can not do that.

Then why bother?

So it is the 'net result' of all these involvements in foreign countries which color the impression of American People and not the actual amounts. Only when exposed 'corruption' for example in Afghanistan makes it 'politically impossible' for Obama, Hillary and Congress to sanction any more Dollars to Afghanistan; that things would change. Else it does not matter how many revealing charts Ezra put; American foreign involvement will continue to fail (or it does not matter how many 'appeals to angels' type of columns Nicholas Kristoff writes in NYT).

Posted by: umesh409 | December 3, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I'd say a more critical poll number is this:

Americans: Uncle Sam Wastes 50 Cents on the Dollar

People think half of their tax dollars are wasted. This is pretty ridiculous on its face, considering such a high percentage of the budget is direct transfer payments to individuals for their retirement or medical care costs -- the benefit/cost ratio is virtually 1. And about 80%-90% of people have said in polls don't want to cut either of these things, so it isn't that... And they don't want to cut defense or the VA either. So where is the 50% that people think is wasted?

As long as people think that half the budget could be cut and no one will be affected, we can't have a serious conversation about the deficit.

Posted by: vvf2 | December 3, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

That's a graph of the competence of those voting every two years on the dispensation of their fellows' lives.

Those are the same people who think health care is a right. Etc.

Posted by: msoja | December 3, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Half the respondents thought it was over 25%.


But so many freshwater economists will go on assuming away asymmetric information and then interpreting the results from that assumption literally to reality.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | December 3, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Is it possible that many of the respondents consider our defense budget (or part of it) as foreign aid? I think a lot of people look at the money being spent on Iraq and Afghanistan as foreign aid...It would be interesting to see if there is any data on a similar question asked during the cold war. I am assuming that right now people look at the money spent in Iraq and Afghanistan and feel like that is money that "aids" foreigners, but does nothing for them. In contrast, I'd guess that during the cold war people might have felt more like the money spent on the military was directly protecting them.

Just a thought...

Posted by: AnonymousInMA | December 3, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

It isn't just misperceptions about foreign aid, it's about our faulty perceptions of the world we live in and our place in it. And the pity of it is that the smugness of the ignorant-and-proud crowd and its champions (wonder what Sarah Palin's answer to that quiz would be) virtually guarantees that the misconceptions will continue to our detriment.

Posted by: pneogy | December 3, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

If I remember correctly, the misperceptions about welfare were similar when the GOP gutted it in the '90s.

Mencken was right — nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Posted by: tomcammarata | December 3, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

To the comment about public opinion of the percentage wasted, I think it's actually encouraging that some finite number was given.

The people who are really worrisome are the ones who believe the number is infinite. As a result, they cannot fathom any government program or initiative that could create value. No matter how large the market externality, intervention is inevitably wasteful.

Posted by: CrimsonBlue | December 3, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

@umesh409: I agree with your point on the dangers of foreign aid destabilizing sustainable growth but you should really read Paul Farmer's 'The Uses of Haiti' before you blame Haitians for the current state of their country.

Posted by: beaugunderson | December 4, 2010 10:21 PM | Report abuse

msoja: Those are the same people who think health care is a right."

You know, all of our peer countries manage to cover everybody, get comparable and sometimes better health outcomes than we do, and do so for a third less to half of what we spend.

So maybe those who consider health care a right are on to something, since they seem to do it better than we do.

Posted by: dasimon | December 4, 2010 10:57 PM | Report abuse

This survey is very, very old news. The Program on International Policy at the University of Maryland released a poll back in 1995 asking how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, and got a median answer of 15%. They also asked how much should to to foreign aid and got a median answer of 5%. The correct answer to the latter was, as it is now, less than 1%.

Michael Kinsley writes about this survey in his essay "The Intellectual Free Lunch" which appeared in the Feb. 6, 1995 edition of The New Yorker and is included in his collection "Big Babies" (1995). He wrote back then, "Add opinions to the list of symptoms of the free-lunch disease that blights American politics. First came the fiscal free lunch: taxes can be cut without cutting middle-class government benefits. Then came the foreign-policy free lunch: America can strut as the world's superpower without putting blood or treasure at risk. Now there's the intellectual free lunch: I'm entitled to vociferous opinions on any subject without having to know, or even think, about it."

He also wrote: "Populism, in its latest manifestation, celebrates ignorant opinion and undifferentiated rage."

How prescient.

Posted by: dasimon | December 4, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

I believe many Americans feel that it is acceptable that their government kills so many innocent people and destroy the lives of many more, because they blindly or purposefully believe the USA helps other countries so much. Sound like an excuse to me, a very bad one. Of course it is Americans that know the least of what their government really does around the world.

Posted by: cpmondello | December 7, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

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