Via Ezra Klein:
This is one of my “favorite” misperceptions about American politics. If I had a dollar for everybody who thought we could solve our budget problems just by cutting foreign aid, I’d be a very rich man. I always spend some time on this little factoid in my Intro to American Government class. Most students are pretty much shocked to find out that foreign aid is less than 1% of the budget.
As for the 11-12% that people seem ready to spend on foreign aid, I really would not put a lot of stock in that. Classic example of the anchoring effect. They are using the anchor of the 1/4 of the budget that they think it is (on average, obviously) and then thinking half of that sounds more reasonable. If you simply told people we spend about 1% of the budget on foreign aid and then asked them what we should spend, I bet it would still be lower. Certainly not 12%.
Leads me to a series of experiments on just how amazingly irrational people are with numbers (that I think I recall reading about in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational). Ask people the last two digits of their social security number and them ask them what they think you should pay for a good bottle of wine. Obviously, there should be no relationship between the two numbers you get, but those XXX-XX-XX94 people ending up willing to spend a lot more on a good bottle of wine than the XXX-XX-XX04 people. Once that 94 or 4 or whatever is in your head, it influences judgments which are completely independent. Nobody who knows what they’re talking about ever suggested humans are actually rational thinkers.