In his new and improved FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver examines the sources of increases in government spending over recent decades and identifies Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as the culprits. He then notes that these are effectively insurance programs. He then concludes that this explains the decline in trust for government:
"Nevertheless, the declining level of trust in government since the 1970s is a fairly close mirror for the growth in spending on social insurance as a share of the gross domestic product and of overall government expenditures. We may have gone from conceiving of government as an entity that builds roads, dams and airports, provides shared services like schooling, policing and national parks, and wages wars, into the world’s largest insurance broker.
"Most of us don’t much care for our insurance broker."
There is a big problem with this story. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are all hugely popular programs across the political spectrum. If the public thought this was all the government did with their money, the government would likely be very popular. In fact, many people often discount these programs from the government as in the famous line from older Tea Party supporters that the government should keep its hands off their Medicare.
In fact, the public hugely misperceives where government tax dollars are spent, as polls consistently show. For example a 2010 poll found, the public on average believes that 27 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid. The actual number is less than 1.0 percent. A CNN poll from the same year found that the median respondent thought that food stamps accounted for 10 percent of the budget, while subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting accounted for 5 percent of the budget. (The actual number is less than 0.01 percent.)
Since the public huge exaggerates the portion of the budget that goes to many non-insurance programs, it is likely that its view of the government is more a result of its attitude toward these programs. The latter is in turn probably more negative than would otherwise be the case because of the exaggerated view of the amount of money these programs receive.
Anyhow, the piece does a good job explaining what is and what is not growing in the budget, but since most people are clueless on these facts (largely to due to the pathetic quality of budget reporting), the piece strikes out badly in its explanation of public opinion.