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Americans appalled at how much we spend on aid, want to spend 10 times more

This chart is courtesy of Ezra Klein (h/t @viewfromthecave and @laurenist), who summarizes the results from a new World Opinion Poll. The 848 Americans polled guessed, on average, that the US spends 25 percent of the budget on foreign aid, but opined that the figure should be about 10 percent. The actual number, as you Aid Watch readers probably know, is less than 1 percent.

The chart will also be interpreted by many as showing that the US should spend more, since many citizens – who have just demonstrated they have no clue what we are currently doing – theoretically have a tolerance for more spending.

I suspect these polls just suggest that most people have a hard time comprehending very large numbers. In fact, public opinion figures on foreign aid correspond closely to another maligned area of federal spending: space exploration. In a 2007 poll, respondents apparently thought 24 percent of federal spending went to NASA, while the real number is also…less than 1 percent.

If this bit of innumeracy is just a natural human failing, perhaps it is related to what’s known in psychological research as the availability heuristic: when a rare event makes a vivid impression, we overestimate its likelihood. Maybe powerful images of earthquake survivors receiving aid in Haiti or a rocket launch remembered from childhood bias us to think these types of events are more frequent, more costly, or more significant in the context of overall spending, than they really are.

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  1. Jacob wrote:

    I wonder what respondents would have said we should spend on aid if they were told beforehand what we actually spend… my guess is that they would want more aid.

    On a slightly related note, 9/11: biggest availability heuristic ever?

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 12:23 am | Permalink
  2. Don Stoll wrote:

    Another plausible interpretation: Americans who think the U.S. spends twenty-five percent of its budget on foreign aid but believe the figure ought be around ten percent mean we should only spend forty percent of what we do spend. . . taking us closer to zero than to one percent.

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 1:39 am | Permalink
  3. Rod wrote:

    I don’t even know what to say to stuff like this anymore. Or the 20 percent of Americans who think Obama is a Muslim. I know Bill Maher has touched on this before but I want to know the real reasons behind these.. trends.. anomalies.. whatever.. Is an informed public not fundamental to a democracy?

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 1:58 am | Permalink
  4. Jim wrote:

    As Jacob says, it is unfortunate that the poll did not ask respondents whether the true amount was ‘too high’ or ‘too low’. A UK survey in 2004 found that 85% of respondents over-estimated how much the government spent on aid, and when told the true amount (0.34% of GDP at the time) twice as many thought it was too high as too low. So until we see evidence to the contrary, I would have thought it makes sense to assume that people who say we should spend more than we do on aid actually mean it.

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  5. This is disgusting, what the hell is going on with the United States?

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  6. David wrote:

    I’ve often suspected the same problem as well. I’d really love to see a survey someday where people are asked to breakdown the distribution of the whole budget (social security, medicare, defense, foreign aid, etc.) based on what they think it is and what they think it should be. Now that would really be a useful survey.

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  7. David Zetland wrote:

    I see this all the time. In this poll (, I asked people what programs they were willing to “trade for” to get public parks. In all cases, they were willing to give up more (from 1.5 to 265x the budget) to achieve their logrolling goal.

    Given the weak cost-benefit ratio of many of these programs, I don’t see much reason for providing them at the federal level, via logrolling tradeoffs that “make us all better off.”

    Better, e.g., to have private parks and retire the Dept of Transportation….

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  8. Don Stoll wrote:

    I think in the end we simply need more information before we can draw any conclusions from this survey. It’s possible the questions were designed in order to elicit the seemingly foolish contradiction. But knowing that Americans are generally ignorant of the realities of foreign aid cannot, as Jacob already pointed out, tell us how much they would want to spend on it if better informed.

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
  9. Vivek Nemana wrote:

    Wouldn’t it be nice if an institution existed that was devoted to properly informing the public about facts? A kind of fourth estate, perhaps, dedicated to the truth.

    Oh wait….

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  10. Dan Kyba wrote:

    This is called ‘bounded rationality’: you intend to be rational but can do so only in a limited manner due to limited information. Surveys such as this are common, but are useful only in so far as the survey topic is viewed with either favour or disfavour.

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  11. Russell wrote:

    Via Kids Prefer Cheese: The question is aid and the actual number given is bi-lateral aid. Do people define aid more broadly? Most likely. How broadly is definitely up for debate. NAFTA contributions, Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction, UN contributions. The survey question really should be more specific although I would still bet that the result is the same just not as stark.

    Posted December 6, 2010 at 10:57 pm | Permalink
  12. S54XX96 wrote:

    This is the deal; Americans -the kind on the street not State department employees or leftist bloggers – hate foreigners, even more so if the foreigners happen to be poor, they also don’t like the federal government much and suspect it to be doing too little for them and too much for the undeserving (minorities, immigrants, etc) hence aid should be cut by 60% and defense increased tenfold.
    Also, bands that I hate seem to get more airplay than my favorite bands.

    Posted December 10, 2010 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

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  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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