Every so often I run across a commentary or published letter to the editor that both infuriates and saddens me. The great majority of them are along the lines of the most recent one I saw, which is why I decided to comment on it and what it represents. The letter in question asked why we’re spending so much money on space programs and research when so much needs to be done on earth. Besides the point that a tremendous amount of good for those of us on earth has come from such programs, the other point is that the amount spent on space programs is a tiny fraction of the U.S. federal budget. In fact, right now NASA spending is one half of one percent of total federal spending.
In past years, the same complaint has been leveled at foreign aid. Even today, polls show that Americans believe, on average, that 26% of federal spending goes to foreign aid, when the total is actually less than one percent.
Americans believe that ten percent of federal spending goes to pay non-defense federal employees. The real amount is a third of that. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is another area. Americans believe it takes up five percent of federal spending. The reality is one tenth of one percent.
Interestingly enough, popular estimates of spending for the programs that most people find “worthwhile” are far more accurate, as in the case of Social Security, where people believe, again, on average, that Social Security takes up twenty percent of total federal outlays, which it does.
In short, the figures that people use are the ones that support their beliefs, despite the fact that the correct numbers for foreign aid, for instance, have been published for years. And even when “everyone” knows the correct numbers, they can’t or won’t do the figures. An example of this is immigration. The figure of eleven million illegal immigrants has been printed, denounced, graphed, and presented in almost every way possible over the past several years. The U.S. population is now roughly 320 million people, and “legal” immigrants comprise just over ten percent of the population, so that all immigrants, legal and illegal, comprise less than 14% of the total population of the U.S. – as opposed to the 33% that Americans, on average, believe. [Of course, both the correct and the “popular” figures ignore the fact that everyone in the U.S. is either an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants, and that includes Native Americans, although their ancestors arrived some 15,000 years before everyone else’s.]
Such distortions abound everywhere politically. One “liberal” group has been declaring that 57% of the U.S. budget goes to defense spending, except a look at the fine print reveals that’s 57% of federal “discretionary” spending, which doesn’t include the bulk of federal spending. Defense spending amounts to around 21% of total federal spending, possibly as high as 24%, given which recent fiscal year’s data is used.
It used to be said that people were entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Apparently, now, everyone is also entitled to their own facts.