Never have the words “ad nauseam” been better applied than to the mind-bending current political mantra that government is bloated, wasteful, and must be made smaller. Demonizing government is present in every debate, speech and discussion among conservative candidates. And with it goes a bundle of misinformation, meaningless sloganeering, specious facts — and a lot of fiction.
In their mantra, the critics do not even define “what” government they are talking about — three are in play: federal, state and local. Are all too big? Some? Which ones? Starting at the most obvious target, the whole idea that the federal government is somehow ballooning out at some explosive rate is fiction. I’m not sure what criteria these folks use to support this claim, but a pretty solid one is the size of the federal government as a percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), on a historical basis. Using this as factual backup … the government really has not grown over modern decades.
In 2009 it was (rounded) 24 percent, one of the higher years to fund the war. In fact, during World War II, the percent of government expenditures as a percent of GDP ranged as high as 48 percent. Among the higher years were those of the hallowed Reagan administration, when the budget as a percent of GDP was about 22 percent — not much different from today. By these criteria, the idea that the government size is exploding is in the fiction category.
Well then, what about all those new government employees and our burgeoning federal payroll? Not true! In 1969 there were 3.0 million federal civilian employees, and in 2009 2.7 million — fewer employees on the federal payroll than 40 years ago! More and more employees feeding at the federal trough? Fiction again.
Majority of budget is ‘mandatory’
In budget terms, 62 percent of our budget 2009 expenses were “mandatory” expenditures like Social Security, Medicare and interest. Smaller-government aficionados rail about Social Security and Medicare. What is lost here is that they are not pure government “expenses”; they are paid-for insurance programs. Social Security and other similar payroll taxes will bring in almost a trillion dollars in revenue.
In the remaining “discretionary” category (38 percent of the budget), the military consumes over half that budget. That leaves about 19 percent of places to cut to make “government smaller.” Included here are such programs as Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, and Transportation (great if you do not care about our roads, bridges, aircraft safety, etc.).
When recently asked which parts of government he would eliminate if elected, Texas Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul responded “Well, that’s a difficult question because that’s a long list. I’d rather you give me the list of the things we should keep. That would be a short list.”
We know conservatives would like to get rid of the Dept of Education. OK, that would cut government size by about 1 percent; cutting out all of the EPA (another target) cuts government size by about .03 percent; and same with the Social Security administration, which spends about .03 percent to administer the program.
However, when Texas is burning, Gov. Rick Perry is totally reliant on government coming to the rescue. When Louisiana is flooding, Gov. Bobby Jindal begs for government help. And when Irene hit, Gov. Chris Christie was pleased to see Obama visit his state. All three are vehement “anti-government” governors.
States have been cutting for years
Well, maybe it is at the state level the “smaller government” folks are talking about. The facts are, states have been slicing and dicing their government for years now as revenues decline. A major effect of this is a significant reduction in state aid to cities and local governments. While the state has a range of revenue sources (diminishing as they may be), local governments rely almost solely on property taxes with some fees mixed in. This means towns and cities have two choices: cut services or raise regressive property taxes — or both.
In fairness, much of the dislike for “government” stems from the current anger at Congress; but it is also amazing to me how rank-and-file government employees are demonized, as though they were some sort of strange breed apart from “normal citizens and taxpayers.” In fact, they are your neighbors, and taxpayers as well. It recalls the famous Pogo quote: “We have met the enemy, and it is US!” Yes, the government in America is US — all of us.
‘Rubber meets the road’ at the local level
Before you “wish for smaller government” consider the ramifications, because it is at the local level that most public services are rendered, and the “rubber meets the road.”
Revere the Constitution? “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Want security and safety? Police forces are smaller. What about getting that fire engine to your house promptly? Minneapolis just cut staff there.
But the harshest cuts of all are in your local school district, and if you do not think smaller class sizes, competent teachers and modern classrooms matter, then you do not really comprehend the ramifications of shouting out: “We want smaller government.”
So before you shout, I would suggest: Better be careful what you ask for. You might get it.
Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.