Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 1, 2010

FOREIGN AID AND PUBLIC CONFUSION.... Ask the public whether the government should cut spending, many Americans will say, "Of course." Ask them what should get cut, you'll hear something about "waste, fraud, and abuse." Press them for specifics, the answer tends to be, "Um, foreign aid."

It's one of those golden oldies that has a certain populist appeal. Instead of spending money to help people overseas, the line goes, we should be spending money on struggling folks right here in the U.S. of A.

Noting the latest data from the Program on International Policy Attitudes, Paul Waldman reminds us of an important detail: most of the country vastly overstates how much we currently spend on foreign aid. From the PIPA report:

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. Even if one only includes the discretionary part of the federal budget, foreign aid represents only 2.6 percent.

Remember, 25% was the median estimate, meaning that a whole lot of Americans think foreign aid represents an even larger percentage of the federal budget.

Waldman added:

This may be the single most important fact about public opinion regarding the budget: most Americans think that much if not most of the money the federal government spends goes to things they don't like and people they don't like, whether it's wasteful pork or foreigners or lazy welfare recipients. So when you tell them we have to start slashing government, they think, "Sounds great -- it certainly won't affect me!"

Steve Benen 2:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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Ask a typical American to spell stupid. The right answer would be the AMERICAN CITIZEN.

Posted by: stormskies on December 1, 2010 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not certain about this but... Isn't a chunk of foreign aid money actually used by recipient countries to purchase weaponry from US manufacturers? If so, wouldn't these manufacturers (usually ardent supporters of Republicans) take an active interest in continuing these payments? Perhaps someone can confirm this.

Posted by: Bob on December 1, 2010 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Balancing the budget isn't even vaguely complicated. Do two things, and you get almost in balance: cut the bloated military budget + rescind the tax breaks to the upper 2%. Go back to Clinton-era rates- when, you may remember, the US economy was booming at rates not seen since the highest marginal tax rate was over 90% in the 1950s- and you may even run a surplus once the economy recovers.

Unfortunately, Serious People believe that history began on 1/20/2009, and that the prior 200+ years of US history are irrelevant. Evidence be damned, they say. And, Serious People say that we need to cut taxes for the rich even further, while slashing spending on the middle class + poor.

A quick note to Serious People: tax cuts are spending. Right now, we're paying for them with money on loan to us from our best buddies in Communist China (although that regime more closely meets the criteria for fascism than communism, but I digress).


Posted by: Zorro on December 1, 2010 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

Most Americans are utterly ignorant about the workings of their government. What we really need on cable TV are smart people with white boards and pie charts. Instead with get rodeo clowns throwing cream pies.

I would love for somebody to give America some basic civics lessons. I am sick to death of the horserace aspects of cable news. Of course, many television "journalists" these days are former sportscasters.

Posted by: Ron Byers on December 1, 2010 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

And welfare. Try telling most Americans that welfare spending is mostly done at the state/county level, not the federal level, and they look at you like you just spit on the flag.

Posted by: Speed on December 1, 2010 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not rich, nor do I blindly go along with what the newspapers, televisions, and multimedia outlets owned by them would love for me to buy into, and I reckon for every 3% tax increase of top wage earners it adds 100 Billion to the U.S. balance sheet. Its pretty obvious we should tax the rich at 70% or so, have a balanced budget by lunchtime, and call it a day.

Posted by: Bless on December 1, 2010 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

Here's a big chunk, and an answer to Bob.


Posted by: Mudge on December 1, 2010 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

This is why Obama "froze" civilian federal salaries. Liberals and other informed people know it is pointless.

However... Somewhere around 60%-80% will tell you that it is about time because government employees get raises all the time.

The next obvious thing to do is the White House announces that all foreign aid will be reduced to no more than 1% of the budget.

Then the Republicans and the MSM will have to advertise that the current level is 1%.

And the low information voters will still credit Obama.

The Rethugs get elected all the time on this sort of BS. Time the good guys spread some too.

Posted by: OKDem on December 1, 2010 at 2:49 PM | PERMALINK

You argument has one fatal flaw - it's based on logic. People do not react logically to this issue in bad economic times.

You also neglect to mention cases like Afghanistan, where highly publicized stories have been reported (including by you) of all the money we're giving the Afghan people that winds up in the pockets of officials.

Posted by: JEA on December 1, 2010 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

Fox propaganda hate TV and hate radio is destroying our democracy with their misinformation campaign.

It's like having your hands tied to a pole and having to just watch as people with torches set fire to our hones and towns.

Using the rules to destroy the spirit for which the laws were created in the first place.

Posted by: bjobotts on December 1, 2010 at 3:10 PM | PERMALINK

"Nobody wants to put money in a hat in Botswana when you got hats that need filling here.
You can't make this about charity. It's about self-interest. We cut farm assistance in
Colombia. Every single crop we developed was replaced with cocaine. We cut aid for
primary education in northwest Pakistan and Egypt; the kids went to madrassahs. Why
weren't you making a case that Republican senators are bad on drugs, and bad on national
security? Why are Democrats always so bumfuzzled?"

The West Wing episode on foreign aid is a good one.

Posted by: GunsNotButter on December 1, 2010 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

On one hand, "cutting foreign aid" is one of those perpetual chestnuts even though such aid amounts to less than pennies in the bigger scheme of things.

On the other hand, I do think that aid to India and China SHOULD be cut, not to rein in the deficit but because both countries are stealing jobs from Americans and are (IMHO) at economic war with America.

Posted by: Eisbaer on December 1, 2010 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

Actually, I think that one percent number is high. I believe that is the percentage for all international non-defense activities, so beside direct foreign assistance, it would also include all contributions to the UN and other international organizations, plus the operating budget of the State Department, including operation of all the embassies and consulates. And as someone pointed out, much of "foreign aid" is not a direct gift but is linked to purchases of various U.S. products - commodities, weapons, etc.

We are not nearly as generous as politicians like to say. The per capita contribution to poorer countries is for Americans much lower than for many smaller countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Posted by: Virginia on December 1, 2010 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

And yet, the one think no politician will ever do is hold up a pie chart that actually says where the money is going. They use the silliest visual aids and hoariest schmaltzy anecdotes to sell an idea, but actually telling people what is in the budget is as verbotten as discussing Vitter's love life.

Posted by: Midland on December 1, 2010 at 3:52 PM | PERMALINK

"You also neglect to mention cases like Afghanistan, where highly publicized stories have been reported (including by you) of all the money we're giving the Afghan people that winds up in the pockets of officials."

Afgahnistan is really important. Obama said so. The End

Posted by: SWB on December 1, 2010 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

I will not try and defend the average American's intellect or information, but I do think a lot of Americans tend to lump big chunks of defense spending to "foreign aid" How much does it cost, for example, to keep 30K U.S. troops in South Korea? Does South Korea pay us to keep the troops there? Do we pay South Korea for the bases? I seem to recall that when there was a suggestion that we reduce our military presence in Germany, there was a hue and cry about what it would do to the local German economy. Of course, try and reduce unemployment in this country through QE2 and the Germans are up in arms because if the dollar devalues it hurts German exports. Japan is a different story because of some of the criminal acts of U.S. servicemen, but I notice the bases are still there and Japan does not pay what it would really cost to deter aggression from China. Dumbya tried to the end to defend his war in Iraq on grounds it was bringing "freedom" to the Iraqis so is it any wonder that the average American would not consider that foreign aid? The idea that foreign aid is a huge part of the budget that should be cut is really just the neo isolationist tendencies that sweep the country in difficult economic times. And yes a good deal of foreign aid is really a subsidy to American business interests particularly arms merchants.

Posted by: Terry on December 1, 2010 at 4:07 PM | PERMALINK

Republicans won the What the Budget Is war and government hasn't fought back.

Republicans want Americans to believe most of the budget is waste, fraud and abuse with too much going to foreign aid because that plays politically and because when they yell about deficits it looks and sound easy to cut without negatively impacting individuals.

Posted by: ET on December 1, 2010 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

Whether it's 2% or 20%, American tax dollars should be helping Americans, not foreigners. If you want to help poor people overseas, reach into your own pocket please and leave the federal treasury alone.


The rich pay almost 80% of the nation's taxes. They're overtaxed as it is. Almost half the people pay no federal income tax at all, mostly middle class folks exempting and deducting their way out of. That is not sustainable.

Posted by: Taody on December 2, 2010 at 12:34 PM | PERMALINK
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