Understanding and Perspective

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.

7 thoughts on “Understanding and Perspective”

  1. JakeB says:

    I think you have a typo in the sentence “… so that all immigrants, legal and illegal, comprise less than 14% of the total immigrant population of the U.S. …”

    I find these numbers you mention — that people believe — astounding. If the CPB got 5% of the federal budget, I don’t know, we’d have President Cookie Monster or something!

    1. Thank you. I’ve fixed that. It should have been and now is “less than 14% of the total population.”

  2. Wine Guy says:

    The tired old saw of “Lies, damn lies, and statistics,” is apropos.

    The other part of this is that the answer to a question that is directed at a politician rarely has to do with what was asked but rather more regards what the politican wishes to address.

  3. Daze says:

    The current debate here in the UK on whether to remain in the European Union is a magnificent case in point. The Leave “battlebus” has in huge letters on the side “We pay the EU £50M a day: we could spend that on the NHS”. Problems with this statement:

    1) we don’t: that’s what the number would be if we didn’t get a rebate: it’s like saying “I paid Walmart full price for this jacket” when it was in a 30% off sale. What we actually pay is somewhat less than £40M a day.

    2) we get quite a lot of that money back in payments from the EU e.g. in subsidies to farmers, and the Leave-ers have promised that they’ll keep paying those subsidies, so that money wouldn’t be available to spend on other things. So now we’re down to just over £20M a day.

    3) the NHS is far from the only promised recipient of that money (NB for American readers: whatever the debates are on your side of the pond about “socialised medicine”, the NHS is very strongly supported by the public here, which is why that’s the promise they pick out to put on the bus)

    4) the people at the head of the Leave campaign are serial voters against spending on the NHS, or indeed any of the other things they’ve said the money could be used for

    5) the NHS total cost is around £92Bn pa, or around £250M per day, so what we’re talking about is a less than 10% increase even if it were true, and wouldn’t “transform” it per their rhetoric in the unlikely event that this promise was carried out.

    6) and there’s more, but let’s move on …

    Taxed in this evening’s debate that this number is a straight lie, the leading Leave campaigner said “no that number is real hard cash” – which is a straight out-and-out lie (even just taking #1 above). A good percentage of the audience massively applauded that.

    1. John Prigent says:

      Oh, I agree. But the ‘remain’ side is just as untruthful with its claims that border controls can be used against EU citizens. Pot, meet kettle! There’s no difference between ethical standards among politicians in ANY country.

  4. darcherd says:

    Q: How can you tell when a politician is lying?
    A: His lips are moving.

  5. Brian K says:

    “The Medium Is The Massage” — Marshall McLuhan

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