Can anyone think of an explanation for “the fact,”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/polls/sspoll020905.pdf ([“via”:http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/]) that, when they are asked to identify the top two recipients of federal government spending, 49% of Americans list “Foreign Aid” as one of them? And, no, it’s not a case of attitudes hardening under Bush. The same pollsters (Harvard and the _Washington Post_), asking the same question in 1997, found 64% of Americans believed that foreign aid was one of the two most expensive things their government does.
I think that overestimating the amount of _our money_ going to _foreigners_ probably happens in all nations, whether they are proud of their foreign aid, or resent it. But I can’t believe that the discrepancy is as wide anywhere else.
In largely unrelated news, the _Guardian_ today reports that there are 110 nukes stored at the American base in Lakenheath, about thirty miles from here. It seems to me that just one would be plenty to deter anyone who wants to bomb Suffolk. The rest of them aren’t really making the world safer.
Actually, these stories may not be entirely unrelated. Given that Americans tend to believe that their armies abroad are benign, and helping the countries that they are in, perhaps the distinction between “defence” — correctly identified by 74% as among the largest parts of government spending — and “foreign aid” is not as clear emotionally as it might be. At least in the case of Israel, the largest recipient of foreign aid, the distinction is hard for anyone to discern.
But I still think it’s a remarkable delusion to be so completely wrong about the figures involved.
What was the proportion of Americans who said they didn’t believe in evolution, etc. Might be some overlap here.
Tsk, tsk, here I am checking back from the US again.
I’ve skimmed the survey and the striking thing is that when it comes to normative questions, e.g. who should see to it that the elderly enjoy a minimally decent standard of living, most give sensible answers (most say the government should and only 5% say families should). It’s when it comes to the empirical questions that they get it wrong, imagining that the bulk of government spending goes to support freeloaders domestically and abroad and that they are amongst the elite whom the current regime’s policies will benefit. (According to a NYTimes survey sometime back 17% of Americans believe that they’re in the wealthiest 1% of the population and another 30% I think believe that within their lifetimes they will be).
So give us a break: that’s ignorance rather than stupidity, and ignorance can be fixed–if our progressive politicos take it upon themselves to provide facts and figures instead of relying on focus groups for ideas about how to package their candidates to appeal to Joe Sixpack and the Soccer Moms.
HE, I don’t think this is stupidity, and I’m sorry if I gave that impression. But it’s not _just_ ignorance either. Simple ignorance might just as well lead answers way under the real figure, were the question not so emotionally loaded. So I am interested in what it is that gives this question its particular emotional weight.
On a general point of principle — if American readers think I say something stupid, ignorant, or just hostile about their country, will they please say so, loudly.
Simon: There must be some overlap. But the two trends are heading in opposite directions, so I think they are largely independent of each other.
It’s American Exceptionalism: most Americans have a big, big emotional investment in the idea that the US is the Greatest Nation on Earth. We were bred on stories of the US rushing in to rescue Old Europe in two world wars and saving Europe with the Marshall plan, etc. My students, when they talk about America’s place in the world, generally represent it in terms of the US vis-a-vis what they think of as “poor countries”–beneficiaries of America’s protection and largesse. (When Japan went into recession a few years back some raised the question of whether we should send food aid)
Most Americans believe that they’re very well-off compared to the rest of the world and compared to other Americans. Virtually all white Americans, including minimum wage workers at Walmart, consider themselves middle class–probably the legacy of the American caste system: until recently blacks were a permanent underclass and no one was even embarrassed about it.
So most Americans see themselves as both individually and collectively privileged, shouldering a massive tax burden to protect and support the poor domestically and abroad–and are surprised, and pissed off, when “ungrateful” Europeans and others refuse to accept our “leadership.” That’s why Bush’s talk about tax “relief” strikes a chord–even where “middle class” Americans rely on public services, they imagine that the bulk of public spending goes to “the poor,” –“enough is enough, we’re laboring under this burden of beneficence.” When, e.g. you mention funding for public education, (I’m not kidding) quite a number of “middle class” Americans argue that because of the tax burden they shoulder to support what they conceive of as state charities, including public schools, they can’t afford to send their kids to PRIVATE schools. (It’s a whole nother way of thinking: “the government is forcing me to pay so much in mandatory charitable contributions that I’ve been reduced to taking charity myself.”)
To undermine that picture of American power, affluence and noblesse oblige is to strike at the heart of our understanding of ourselves as Americans. Latte-drinking liberal college professors like myself who don’t buy it are ipso facto “unamerican.”