As you probably know, Mitt Romney talked about defunding PBS during the most recent presidential debate. The idea of cutting off PBS has been a rallying cry for Republicans for more than a year.
I recently stumbled upon a poll by CNN that asked Americans to give rough estimates of how much the US federal government spends on various government programs. The results are hilarious, so I had to share them here.
Going off on a tangent to start – add up the percentages in the “greater than 50%” column and you get 108%. At least a handful of people said that they thought 2 different programs took up more than 50% of the federal budget. Basically, Americans have no idea how big the budget is, but it’s apparently so big that it’s greater than 100% of…itself? This is kind of funny, since the rough estimates were provided only by respondents. The rules of the survey were as follows:
Just give me your best guess — you can pick any number from one percent to a hundred percent, or if you think it was less than one percent, you can say that too. “
Now, back to PBS. Twenty-seven percent of people got this answer right. The budget for PBS is a little more than one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. Forty percent of people were close at 1-5% – close in the sense that they were only off by magnitudes.
I’m not sure what this tells us about the ability of Americans to deal with large numbers. In the worst case, I would expect that any reasonable person could tell me that the federal budget is between $2 and $5 trillion per year. Thus 1% of the budget could be estimated at $20-50 billion. 10% of the budget would be $200-$500 billion, and 50% would be between $1 and $2.5 trillion.
I wonder if the answers would have changed if CNN offered survey respondents that basic estimate before they began. My guess is that it would have resulted in some change, but very little. It doesn’t really matter how big the pie is – it’s all about understanding the relative value of each slice. A wide estimate might have allowed at least some people think a little harder about what the budget looks like. I mean, seriously, if you use my basic range, 10% of Americans think we spend so much on food stamps that we could buy supply every American with a Big Mac for every meal every day of the year and still have tons of cash leftover.
Then again, a college student told me last week that politicians were planning to spend $250 TRILLION on advertising this campaign cycle. Like a true smartass, I asked “$250 TRILLION? That’s a hell of a stimulus package!” only to be met with a questioning nod. He then went back to counting down the days to election day.