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November 07, 2013 4:45 PM The Stubborn Santy-Klaus-To-the-World Illusion

By Ed Kilgore

When I was growing up in Georgia, I often heard then-Senator Herman Talmadge rail against foreign aid, or, as he put it, “playing Santy-Klaus” to the world.” This was one line he consistently used as he evolved from being a legendary segregationist demagogue to a Hero of the Watergate Hearings.

Old Herman was most definitely onto something, as any public opinion researcher can tell you. The single most egregiously erroneous belief of the American people is that “foreign aid” is where a big percentage of their tax dollars go.

As Ezra Klein laments today, it’s “the budget myth that just won’t die.” A very recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey giving respondents a chance to guess on the percentage of the federal budget devoted to “foreign aid” produces an average guess of 28%. The actual answer is 1%.

Now it’s true that “foreign aid” means different things to different people. If U.S. defense spending associated with protecting other countries is “foreign aid,” it’s a lot more than 1%.

But the broader problem is that a lot of Americans dislike the size of the federal government and federal spending, but like specific federal programs and spending categories a whole lot. So it’s easy to guess that the gap between the big bad federal government and benevolent federal programs must be money poured down ratholes overseas. Or that’s how Herman Talmadge—a very bright but cynical man—must have figured it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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