Americans believe federal funding of research & arts is huge, but it's actually tiny

Our federal budget is totally irrational. Excluding trust funds like Social Security, America spends over half our budget on the military.

Even worse, a functioning democracy requires an informed public, yet most Americans have completely false beliefs about how their tax dollars are spent. For example, most believe foreign aid and spending on the arts are orders of magnitude larger than they are:

Asked to estimate how much of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, the median estimate is 25 percent. Asked how much they thought would be an “appropriate” percentage the median response is 10 percent.

In fact just 1 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid.

And foreign aid is huge compared with arts spending:

The [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] CPB is getting $455 million (of which about $90m goes to radio stations). The Smithsonian gets the biggest federal arts allocation, at $761m. If you add all arts-related federal programs together, funding for the current fiscal year totals just over $2.5 billion. Honestly, that number looks pretty large to me. I can’t imagine what a billion of anything really looks like. But the total federal budget for this fiscal year (which runs through September) is $3.82 trillion. So the federal arts funding we’ve identified is 0.066% of the total federal budget. And when we’re only shouting about CPB, we’re talking about 0.012%. That is twelve one-thousandths of one percent….

According to a CNN poll, most Americans do not think the CPB gets twelve one-thousandths of one percent of the budget. Actually, only 27% of those surveyed believe the CPB gets less than 1% of the total budget. 40% believe the CPB gets 1-5%. Everyone else believed the appropriation to be greater than 5%, and an astonishing 7% of those surveyed believe the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gets more than 50% of the budget (which would have to be close to $2 trillion)….

What about [categories not even included in the poll, like] subsidies to the oil & gas industry, which the Obama administration claims add up to $4 billion (about 9 times CPB funding)? What about direct subsidies for farmers, which were about $5 billion last year? Tax exemptions for ethanol production aren’t mentioned, either. Nor are the $8.5 billion in subsidies given to the airlines since 9/11 simply to help them survive. These subsidies went to for-profit industries, which are theoretically subject to the rigor of the free market and exist for the profit of their shareholders. And yet, more discussion is generated by $2.5 billion in subsidies to arts organizations, both governmental and non-profit, that explicitly exist for the public benefit and do not have shareholders.

David Brooks offers some interesting examples of the practical value of social science research:

When you renew your driver’s license, you have a chance to enroll in an organ donation program. In countries like Germany and the U.S., you have to check a box if you want to opt in. Roughly 14 percent of people do. But behavioral scientists have discovered that how you set the defaults is really important. So in other countries, like Poland or France, you have to check a box if you want to opt out. In these countries, more than 90 percent of people participate….

What is the starting taxi fare in your city? If you are like most upper-middle-class people, you don’t know. If you are like many struggling people, you do know. Poorer people have to think hard about a million things that affluent people don’t. They have to make complicated trade-offs when buying a carton of milk: If I buy milk, I can’t afford orange juice. They have to decide which utility not to pay.

These questions impose enormous cognitive demands. The brain has limited capacities. If you increase demands on one sort of question, it performs less well on other sorts of questions.

Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.’s. They have more trouble controlling their attention. They are more shortsighted. Scarcity creates its own psychology.

Princeton students don’t usually face extreme financial scarcity, but they do face time scarcity. In one game, they had to answer questions in a series of timed rounds, but they could borrow time from future rounds. When they were scrambling amid time scarcity, they were quick to borrow time, and they were nearly oblivious to the usurious interest rates the game organizers were charging. These brilliant Princeton kids were rushing to the equivalent of payday lenders, to their own long-term detriment.

Given his belief that social science can inform wiser, cheaper social policies, Brooks is understandably upset social science is on the budgetary cutting block:

Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.

Politicians will only rationalize spending if the people have some semblance of a grasp on actual spending. The American people are obviously clueless about how their tax dollars are spent. Until we figure out where our dollars are going, politicians will continue spending them however they see fit their corporate donors tell them to.

Posted by James on Saturday, July 09, 2011