Jonathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine, commented on a bizarre story that appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post. Chait said the story (“After six budget showdowns, big government is mostly unchanged“) was,
one of the weirdest, and most weirdly biased, news articles I’ve ever read in my life.
The writer of the Post story is David Fahrenthold, who, as the paper tells us, “covers Congress for the Washington Post.” That would lead one to believe that Fahrenthold is a genuine news reporter, not a columnist or an editorial writer.
But as Chait points out, it is hard to tell that the Post story was written by an objective journalist, since it seems to push a Tea Party message that “government is not shrinking” and it is “really, really big.” I strongly urge you to read Chait’s piece, but I will post here a couple of graphs he used (similar to others I have used on this blog) to demonstrate why government is in fact getting smaller and why it is not as big as you might think:
This graph represents the federal workforce as a percentage of U.S. population. It speaks for itself. No one can seriously argue that, in terms of the size of the federal workforce, that government is getting bigger.
This second graph comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
The article from the CBPP addresses the misleading meme, spread by right-wing government-shrinking radicals, that “government spending in the United States is 41 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).” As with all statistics, a little context is in order, which the CBPP article provides. To summarize slightly:
♦ That 41 percent number comes from the Organisation for Cooperation and Development (OECD) and which reflects “spending by all levels of government,” federal, state and local, with local governments spending about one-third of the total.
♦ The OECD uses a system of measurement developed for the United Nations, which significantly differs from measurements made by the federal government via the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (that explains the difference between the dark blue and light blue lines on the graph). The United Nations’ measurement includes, for instance, “the entire cost of running the public-university system, not just what legislators appropriate to supplement students’ tuition payments.”
♦ The year the 41 percent figure is derived (2011) “exaggerates the situation”:
Automatic increases in safety-net programs like unemployment insurance andfood stamps, plus recovery measures that Congress enacted, pushed up the numerator (spending), even as a slumping economy squeezed the denominator (GDP). This happened in other countries, too.
♦ The CPBB notes that government spending is decreasing and that “the Congressional Budget Office projects that federal spending will continue to decline through mid-decade as a percent of GDP.”
♦ Finally, the CPBB makes two more important points that anyone interested in this stuff should know:
First, this doesn’t mean that government controls about 40 percent of the U.S. economy. The bulk of government spending goes for payments to individuals through transfer programs such as Social Security, and most of the goods and services that people buy with these payments are privately produced.
Second, government spending in the United States — by the OECD’s broad measure—remains about 2 ½ percent of GDP below the OECD average, and about 8 percent below the average level among countries that have adopted the euro. While the United States faces plenty of long-run fiscal challenges, out-of-control spending today isn’t one of them.