Would it be a colossal overstatement (I don’t think so) to say that in U.S. political culture there is a deep and long-running bias against government spending in general?
Would it be crazy or rude to think that this bias favors rich people, who would presumably pay more than their per capita share of higher taxes, and hurts the poor who pay less in taxes and benefit more? (I don’t think so.)
Yes, of course, the USA spends a gazillion or two more on military (please, we call it “defense,” since we never go on offense, except most of the time) spending than anyone else. But, by the standards of the other wealthy countries of the world, we spend less per capita of government dollars on most of the non-defense/offense things that contribute to what might be called the quality of life of its citizens.
What should be subsidized by tax dollars and what should be privatized is a constant issue, and the line has long moved in the direction of more government spending, compared to the past — but not in the U.S. when compared to other nations in the past or in the present. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are all wonderful 20th-century additions to the safety net, compared to doing nothing, although they can always be criticized as forms of “socialism.” But, either way, those programs are small compared to what other prosperous nations do to provide basic health care and income to the poor and the elderly.
In some sense, this is what a lot of our politics is about. In general — but especially on the political right — the U.S. has viewed public spending as a sort of last resort/necessary evil or, perhaps, unnecessary evil and a fundamental assault on freedom. Freedom!
Those who argue for programs to help more people who can’t afford to help themselves to things like health care, welfare and education are always in danger of being viewed as, well, commies or socialists or bleeding-heart liberals or something else that goes against proper Americanness.
So how’s that working out for us? Well, we don’t live as long, (31st among world nations in life expectancy, just behind Cyprus, Chile, and Costa Rica); our kids don’t do as well in school (38th in average math scores, just behind Slovakia); and we proudly rank No. 1 among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations in the highest portion of our population living in poverty.
I bring up the OECD, which is, not officially but sort of, a club of the world’s most developed nations, because my starting point for this column was to use data from that organization’s membership list to provide an overview of whether societies that spend more collectively, through government taxing and spending at all levels, are doing better or worse in quality of life for their citizens.
So I looked up the OECD ranking of total per capita government spending, and wanted to ask whether you would like the overall quality of life in your country to be in the club of the top third or the bottom third.
Here, in graphic form, are the OECD member nations ranked according to the portion of their GDP that goes to general government spending, and bear in mind that the U.S. gets credit in that category for military spending, where it has the highest of any of the OECD members, not just in absolute dollars but on a per capita basis. The report is from 2017, but the numbers are from 2015.
While the OECD is sort of a club of relatively wealthy first-world nations, that oversimplifies it. The U.S. and NATO members are in there, but so is Lithuania. Its membership has been expanding, even since the time of this report.
My basic point is that most of the countries I (how about you?) wouldn’t mind living in if I had to emigrate are near the top the list in terms of the percentage of their GDP that is used for government programs. Here’s the top 10, ranked in order of per capita general government spending:
And here, also in descending order, are the 10 OECD nations that spent the least:
- Russia !!!
- Costa Rica
The OECD specifies: General government spending consists of central, state and local governments, and social security funds. That makes the comparisons more accurate across nations, like ours, divided into states, and those not, and that distribute various jobs different across local, state and national government.
I’m not saying that Australia or Switzerland are hellholes. I’m sure the story is more complicated. I’m not in favor of socializing everything. I am in favor of taxing rich people (including me) more to improve the lives of those who make less.
The OECD currently consists of 36 member nations, but has been adding members recently. I believe the figures above reflect 33 members. The membership includes all three nations of North America, most or all of Western Europe and Scandinavia, and the three former Soviet Baltic Republics, the Czech and Slovak Republics, plus Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Israel, Turkey and South Korea. Any of those countries that are not on the two lists above fall in the middle, in government spending per capita.
Russia, which appears on one of the lists above, is not an OECD member, but the organization sometimes includes data on non-members for various informational purposes. Costa Rica, which also appears, is not yet a full but its membership is in process.
The U.S. also ranks 6th from the bottom in government revenue per capita.