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Is government bloated? Truth and fiction

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.

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/25/2011 - 01:23 pm.

    Right On!

  2. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/25/2011 - 05:53 pm.

    I agree, Paul. But trying to get people to listen is not easy. They go for slogans.

  3. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/26/2011 - 06:56 am.

    I think you make a mistake in assuming that the Tea Party has some sort of coherent governing philosophy.

  4. Submitted by David Hallman on 09/26/2011 - 09:44 am.

    The problem with government is that it is doing things the constitution says it has no authority to do. The US Government should stay out of public education. If the money spent by the bureaucracy in DC would be kept in the states they would be able to afford to run their own systems. Your ridiculous statements about the three governors begging for money for disasters is indeed untrue. The federal government should give up some of it’s illegal power and the states could handle their own emergencies. If anyone thinks that sending money into a huge bureaucracy in DC makes the system efficient than I suggest they leave government alone and continue to enjoy their medical marijuana for those phantom headaches.

  5. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/26/2011 - 10:16 am.

    David
    So do really think a conservative-dominated Supreme Court is allowing the other branches of government to do things “the Constitution says it has no authority to do”? What things?

    Actually the three governors DID aggressively seek Federal help; in fact Jondal was highly critical of the slow pace help was coming. Christie was grateful.

    Is there waste, fraud, and inefficency in government? You betcha (I am a third generation Minnesotan). Having said that, is there waste, inefficiency and FRAUD in the private sector? Absolutely. Talk about “fraud” for a thousand examples read your daily paper, every day. You’ll find plenty there.

    The fact is that in the adminstration of our entitlement programs (the major part of our budget), the cost of adminstration is a fraction of that of the private sector. Compare the cost of Medicare management (3-6% depending on what is included) to that of private health insurance companies (about 18-20%).

    Sure the states can handle many issues; but the advantage the Federal government has is that it has a much broader range of revenue options. And that is why the local taxing agencies are in such deep trouble. They have only one: property taxes.

    As I ended: “be careful what you ask for, you might get it”.

  6. Submitted by chuck holtman on 09/26/2011 - 10:40 am.

    Miles: Reasonable article, but still doesn’t question the framing. Why don’t we ever talk about the bloated private sector? Beyond the core of private economic activity that serves real needs and wants is a huge amount of economic activity producing goods and services that people need to be manipulated to want, externalizing huge social and environmental costs. The only social value of this bloating is that it serves as a very crude means of distributing wealth by giving folks pay in exchange for participating in that production. And to the extent pay for those jobs declines in real terms and the jobs become ever more tenuous, the social benefit of the private sector as a wealth distribution mechanism declines and the argument for expanding the public side of the economy becomes stronger. A healthy economy is complex in its private and public elements, but the present dysfunction of our economy counsels a shift along the continuum much more toward the public rather than the private end.

  7. Submitted by David Hallman on 09/26/2011 - 11:45 am.

    Where do I start with things the Supreme Court allows that are unconstitutional? The first is the health care bill. Next would be abortion. Telling the states that somewhere in the bill of rights this is located. Third. Separation of church and state. Where in the constitution is that located? The constitution says Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.Where in there does it say I can’t pray in school or have a prayer before graduation? Fourth. We should eliminate the Dept of Education.Education is a local issue. Fifth. How is is constitutional for the government to be loaning billions and trillions to private companies? The constitution doesn’t allow the government to control business’s. It does allow the government to ensure businesses have an even playing field and that only means they don’t have rules that exclude them while allowing others to do the work.The same people who say keep the govt out of their bedroom wants the govt in every other room. How about some consistency from my liberal friends???

  8. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/26/2011 - 02:21 pm.

    Chuck, sure I would like to do an article as you suggested on the private sector; but I had an major op-ed in yesterday’s Strib, and this one here today. Plus I have a full time job, and am 78 years old. Your suggestion on your topic will have to wait if it comes from me.

    David, so many questions. Briefly, the helath care bill has not even reached the court, so deeming it “unconstitutional” is highly premature. Abortion HAS been decided — give it up!

    Re other stuff, I personally do not like many SCOTUS decisions, but never the less they ARE decisions and that is how our government is run. You can disagree, but claiming things that have long been decided are not constitutional is, well, arogant and misinformed. They are the laws of the land. Period.

    Your comment about keeping government out of every room in the house but allowing it in the bedroom, has the same inconsistency you complain about. Conservatives want it out of ever daily activity, EXCEPT the most personal and private activities humans have: childbirth and gay rights.

  9. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/27/2011 - 06:09 am.

    If the federal government is right-sized, how did it get in debt $15 trillion ($50K for each man, woman, and child)?

    The MN state budget for this year is $48 billion, next year it is projected to be $51 billion. Yet, you claim that states have been cutting for years? The value of my home has never been lower in the last five years than it is today, yet my property taxes have never been higher.

  10. Submitted by David Hallman on 09/27/2011 - 09:03 am.

    Miles. HMM Where do I start with your response? 1st. I can say something unconstitutional. 9 current political appointees making a split decision on anything does not make it correct or constitutional. Taking your statement about giving up on abortion as it is settled. HMM! I thought abortions being illegal was settled law prior to the overreach by the supreme court.I also noticed as a liberal how quickly you call other people names such as arrogant. How quickly those that are losing the argument resort to name-calling rather than giving facts to support their argument.The real problem with liberals is they present lies and say they are facts. Conservatives are not for restricting liberties. We are for protecting them such as the preborn children. We conservatives are for childbirth and rights for people. We are not for giving certain classes of people more rights than others. Why would a person get a longer sentence for hitting a gay person? I thought all men were created equal. I think any two or more people should be able to make a contract that allows them to have the right to make medical directives, household and estate functions of any other person. Marriage is between a man and a woman. That is what it is. Make a new term for other combinations if that is what you want. The problem with the gay marriage argument is it could be made for three men and four women getting married. I have heard the argument that you can’t stop two people in love from getting married. With that argument ten people in love could be married. before you discount this argument, think of precedents and how the law works.Part of having a country is to establish laws which keep order. I will pray for all of you.

  11. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/27/2011 - 09:16 am.

    Real quick Steve.

    We got in debt primarily because of two wars not paid for (the first time in American history we did not RAISE taxes to pay for military action — during WWII the top tax rate was 92% and few complained). Also a large part of our deficits are revenue decisions, not spending ones. The Bush tax cuts were a disaster for the country.

    Why is the state budget larger. Simple. More peple and inflation which is modest but adds to the cost of running government and everything it buys.

    Why higher poperty taxes? Because conservatives are unwilling to employ the income tax for added revenue. that would be more fair, more progressive, and a better option. In that regard, many of our legislators have signed that ridiculous Nordquist pledge which is clearly in conflict with their oath to do what is necessary in their role as legislators and representative of all the people.

  12. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/27/2011 - 09:50 am.

    Myles:

    I think you need to work with some numbers. Otherwise, it is hard to tell the fiction from the truth.

    The U.S. is $15 trillion in debt. Since the start, the Afghan war has cost $450 billion; the Iraq war has cost $800 billion. That leaves about $14 trillion to explain. The failed economic stimuli have cost more than the two wars combined.

    Without the wars, the military would still require a significant budget to maintain. Think how high unemployment would rise if most of the soldiers were discharged.

    Minnesota state expenditures have been on a steady upward march. The ten years from 2000 through 2009 (dollars in billions): 35.4, 38.0, 40.5, 41.3, 42.9, 44.8, 48.7, 50.8. All during a decade of very low inflation. I don’t see a cut.

  13. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/28/2011 - 09:54 am.

    Steve,
    Your numbers are correct, but need some drilling. In 2000 our debt was $5 Trillion; in 2009 (Obama’s first year) they were $12 Trillion. That speaks volumes, and makes a statement about the effect of the Bush tax cuts — a massive error based totally on ideology, not economics.

    Sure, we still should cut the military budget. Very simply, we cannot afford it, especially extraordinarily expensive weapons systems. Some bombs now cost over a million dollars, and poof…it is gone form our economy in a flash. Ridiculous.

    State government EMPLOYMENT has not grown, it has shrunk. Our services have now had all the fat, meat and bone cut from them, and not much left to cut deeper.

  14. Submitted by Steve Rose on 09/29/2011 - 10:44 am.

    Rolf (#2):

    “But trying to get people to listen is not easy. They go for slogans.”

    Do you mean slogans like, “Hope & Change”?

    Myles:

    Since you played the Bush card, I have to point out that President Obama doubled down on some Bush bets. Stimulus; yes but bigger; war in Afghanistan, yes but bigger; debt, sure but bigger. The economy responded with 9-10% unemployment and $4 gasoline.

    I might characterize this presidency as Bush’s third term, but that would be unfair to Bush.

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