Debate Prep: 11% of Americans Grasp the Ryan Budget

by Larry Bartels on October 11, 2012 · 6 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political Economy,Public opinion

Under the budget proposed by Paul Ryan, federal spending on everything other than Medicare and Social Security would decline over the next 20 years …

(a) from 22% of GDP to 18.5% of GDP


(b) from 22% of GDP to 14.5% of GDP


(c) from 14.5% of GDP to 11.5% of GDP


(d) from 14.5% of GDP to 7% of GDP.


In this week’s YouGov survey, 34% of Americans chose (b); 23% chose (a); 15% chose©; only 11% chose the correct answer (as scored by the Congressional Budget Office), (d). (The remaining 16% declined to hazard a guess.)

In other words,

(1) most people vastly overestimate how much the federal government is currently spending;

(2) a plurality expect the Ryan budget to reduce federal spending in 20 years to the level it is at right now; and

(3) among the minority who have an accurate sense of current spending, most vastly underestimate the magnitude of the cuts Ryan has proposed.

 

Cross-posted at Model Politics.

{ 6 comments }

RobC October 11, 2012 at 6:46 pm

In fairness to those benighted respondents, many may have been confused by the qualification that Social Security and Medicare were to be excluded from their answer. When federal government spending as a percentage of GDP is discussed, it’s almost always with those programs included. That’s the basis for the approximately 24% figure many people know. But this sort of question does give some folks a chance to say, “Gotcha!” and lament how ill-informed the electorate is, and that’s always fun.

RobC October 11, 2012 at 7:47 pm

If we want to revel in real cluelessness, let’s consider Jon Stewart. He lampoons current events four nights a week and by virtue of his job is certainly better informed than most. And yet he believes that Bill Clinton paid down the national debt. Gevalt!

TR October 11, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Hunch: Your conclusion would not be robust to simply presenting respondents with different response options, such a set where 14.5% is the bigger, rather than the smaller point of comparison. (One new choice would be “from 7% of GDP to 3.5% of GDP.)

Scott October 12, 2012 at 9:29 am

Right. In fact, I would bet that if the answer choices were written such that the correct answer was the largest portion of the GDP offered and the smallest cut offered, the conclusion would be: 1) most people vastly underestimate how much the federal government is spending, and 2) most vastly overestimate the magnitude of the proposed cuts.

byeates October 12, 2012 at 4:39 am

The question asked is actually a lot more complicated than one might take at face value. The relatively informed voter might know that federal spending is at or around 22% of GDP, but they likely don’t know how much of the total Social Security and Medicare account for. Myself, I know that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up about 40% of spending, something like $1.5t, but don’t know just how much of that is attributed to Medicaid (my best guess would be $300b), so I have to account for that. So if $1.2t of spending is off the table, that puts spending at $2.5t out of a GDP of about $15t, or 16% of GDP.

Somewhere in there my top-of-my-head estimates are off by some margin, but that’s alot of work to just uncover the first figure that’s is cited–I don’t think from this you can really draw meaningful conclusions about what voters do and do know. You also have to take into account the rising share those programs are going to take from spending as a whole, which in and of itself will reduce discretionary and military spending as a share of GDP, irrespective of any cuts whatsoever. So in other words:

1) the problem is by no means simple
2) it wasn’t at all clear what was being asked
3) any conclusions drawn seem extremely tenuous, maybe even flippant

RobC October 12, 2012 at 9:48 am

So let’s review the bidding here. We have a confusing, badly designed and tendentious survey question asked of a self-selected, unrepresentative sample, from which a respected social scientist draws conclusions about what “Americans” and “most people” think. What’s wrong with this picture?

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