Cognitive dissonance and the federal budget

Whether it’s foreign aid, highways or medicare, when the topic of trimming the federal budget comes up everyone has a program they believe should be cut.  A poll conducted in April 2010 by The Economist asked 1000  respondents which federal programs should receive less funding.  The program receiving the highest number of votes was foreign aid.  At the other end of the list was medicare and social security.  By themselves, these numbers are interesting but not dissonant.  What is interesting and the source of the cognitive dissonance is when the ranking of these programs is compared to their relative contribution to the federal budget.

Many of the programs at the top of the list such as foreign aid, mass transit and the environment make up a small percentage of the overall budget.  Annie Lowery of The Washington Independent published an article on this topic with the graph below that summarized the relationship between the programs people most wanted cut and the cost of those programs.

"The Futility of Budget Cuts by Anne Lowery"
In this graph the blue bars indicate the percent of respondents who would like to reduce spending for the program. The red bars indicate the relative contribution to the federal budget.

Based on this information, it would seem that if we want to be serious about balancing the federal budget then the focus should be on managing the expenditures that contribute most to the budget: social security, national defense, aid to the poor, Medicare and Medicaid.  While passionate discussions about controlling other expenditures may generate headlines, sound bites and campaign slogans, the reality is that if all of these programs were cut entirely there would be minimal impact on the budget.

The real challenge is to deal with controlling costs associated with the “big-ticket” items but that will be challenging.  Rallies and slogans to cut national defense and medicare are not likely to garner the same publicity as highly visible and emotional outrage over foreign aid.  Isn’t it time we start making decisions based on facts and not emotions?  That is the great challenge facing us as a society.  As long as opposing sides are willing to debate issues based on the factual merits there will always be hope.  If the debate is fueled by emotions, fringe constituencies and demagoguery then the chance of progress becomes vanishingly small.  We all lose.



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