Security Prominence Trumps the FY 2020 Budget Proposal

The US budget must make trade-offs between spending alternatives—in doing so, Trump’s recent proposal might fall victim to “prominence bias.”


By Alex Garinther

President Trump last week released a highly-contested budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year. While congress is unlikely to approve such a proposal, Trump’s budget sends a message about his administration’s current thinking and spending priorities. An examination of this thinking suggests the administration may have fallen victim to the prominence effect—a psychological bias that sways us to overvalue certain “obvious” alternatives when faced with difficult tradeoffs.

The proposal seeks to increase defense spending in large amount—by $34 billion next year, which constitutes an approximate 5% boost. These requests come in connection with cuts to key areas of foreign aid, diplomacy, and development spending. For these programs, the budget requests roughly $14 billion less than what Congress was expecting to spend, a roughly 24% drop. As the Associated Press summarized it, this budget intends to fund military spending by offsetting those costs “with sharp reductions in funding to international organizations like the United Nations, global health and refugee programs and a reorganization of USAID.”

This might be a strategic mistake. According to some analysts, the decision to ramp up defense spending may not actually increase national security after all; it might make Americans less safe. This is what Kori Schake calls the “militarization of foreign policy,” and she considers it a misguided substitute for traditional diplomacy and long-run development efforts. What’s more, these budget priorities might reflect a deeper inability to perform the appropriate tradeoffs and cost-benefit analyses, and instead demonstrate the administration’s reliance on simplistic decision rules, namely prominence bias.

According to an originator of prominence theory, Paul Slovic, “The essence of this effect is that, although we may have a qualitative sense of the importance of valued attributes, we may not have a sense of the appropriate quantitative tradeoffs when these attributes compete with one another” (p. 26). In order to deal with these difficult tradeoffs, we often lean toward the simpler and more defensible choice. In the case at hand, the perceived need to uphold national security might be leading the administration to overvalue defense-related spending to the detriment of other critically important programs.

The prominence effect represents a simplification of choice. According to Slovic, “We struggle with making tradeoffs and seek a simple, defensible way to choose among options whose attributes are important but conflicting.” Proposing a budget that spends profusely on defense is both simple and easy to justify. At the same time, programs on foreign aid and development, which fall outside of the president’s attentional spotlight and the spotlight of his supporters, therefore become expendable.

This view is consistent with recent work from political scientist Michael Mazarr on how “imperatives”—perceived visceral and urgent needs that obviously feel necessary—can cut off risk assessment among political actors. Decisions driven by “feeling-of-knowing imperatives” deviate from traditional cost-benefit analysis and rational weighing of objectives and consequences; instead, they operate through emotions in a way that makes careful consideration of consequences seem unnecessary. In this case, however, careful consideration of consequences is necessary, because a budget that spends too much on defense and too little on aid/development might not benefit Americans in the long-run—and it certainly won’t benefit the millions around the globe dependent on US support.

Decisions as important as national spending shouldn’t follow quick-and-easy decision rules like these; they should be based on thoughtful analysis and deliberation. This budget proposal represents an unfortunate example of how decision-making biases can lead us astray, even for those who sit at high levels of government.