Update This stays top for today because we’re still waiting for some regulars to chime in and because I’m busy.
Here is federal government spending as a fraction of the GDP (in 2008 dollars; here is the first most depressing graph: you have to add state and local yourself).
There are difficulties comparing government spending to GDP. First, as the bumps emphasize, government spending is part of GDP. That means this chart under-emphasizes the true size and encroachment of government into citizens’ lives. By how much it’s difficult to say, but it is a non-ignorable amount.
Around 1900, government spent about 2% of the GDP; in 2012 it was just over 25%. Since government spending is part of the GDP statistic, and since its contribution to the actual GDP has increased, the growth in government is higher than the indicated 12-13 times.
We repeatedly hear that health-care is “one-sixth of the economy.” That’s an exaggeration which relies on an expansive definition; plus, the government already owns a healthy chunk of medicine (and therefore of the GDP). Regardless, when Obamacare fully hits, this curve will spring northwards like a Canadian snowbird leaving Florida in March to get home in time to maintain his health insurance eligibility.
Anther way this curve under-estimates government size is to consider that gross federal debt was about $16 trillion last year, 3% larger than the GDP. There are other ways of measuring debt. Robert “Great Moustache” Samuleson pegs the most inclusive at $31 trillion, which is 200% of the GDP.
This is another trend which cannot continue, therefore it won’t.
Now it is true that at times and places government has contributed positively to the economy. Interstate highways, to name one worthy innovation. But perhaps not entirely worthy. Reliance on highway-bound trucks reduce the number of trains, therefore also passenger trains. Cars contribute to sprawl.
What would have happened in the state elected not to build freeways? Answer: nobody knows. All that is clear is that citizens would have acted differently. It is a matter of faith to say they would have been worse off. They would have been better. There is no data either way.
What one cannot do is point to a graph of GDP per capita (which is linear in constant dollars since 1901) and another of government spending and note that, because of their similarity, that one caused the other; rather, one cannot claim that the increase in GDP would have been absent or smaller without government intervention. The growth could have been larger if government were smaller. There is no direct data either way.
We do know this. Government spends by forcefully taking money from one group of citizens (alive and yet unborn), keeping some itself, then giving a portion to other groups. “Donors” are directly injured and recipients immediately prosper from the largess. Other constituencies grow jealous and demand their “fair” share. A cycle of dependency is created, subservience and servility become first nature. People forget they are part of government, which becomes a sort of royal, paternal Other.
Government growth becomes unstoppable when it takes more than is necessary for basic security, when it confuses pursuit of happiness for its guarantee. We are well past that point.
I wanted to show the increase in the number of federal laws. Not easy to do, since counting them is purposely difficult. All reports are that the number is growing, and will continue to grow, exponentially.
“There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” said John Baker, a retired Louisiana State University law professor who has also tried counting the number of new federal crimes created in recent years. “That is not an exaggeration.” [Source: WSJ]
Federal regulations? One method of counting said:
According to the Office of the Federal Register, in 1998, the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the official listing of all regulations in effect, contained a total of 134,723 pages in 201 volumes that claimed 19 feet of shelf space. In 1970, the CFR totaled only 54,834 pages.
The General Accountability Office (GAO) reports that in the four fiscal years from 1996 to 1999, a total of 15,286 new federal regulations went into effect. Of these, 222 were classified as “major” rules, each one having an annual effect on the economy of at least $100 million.
Here’s the Federal Register pages from 1975 to 2011 (before Obamacare):
Page counts are indicative of intrusion, but not a complete measure. See this explanation.
“Over the past decade, the federal government has issued almost 38,000 new final rules, according to the draft of the 2011 annual report to Congress on federal regulations by the Office of Management and Budget.” That’s more than 10 per day. As of today, the site Regulations.gov boasted that over the last 90 days 5,955 new regulations were posted. That’s 66 per day. There are another 1,085 in the immediate pipeline. A medical tsunami.
And just how do we plot the pertinacious rise of nanny-ism? Bans of soda pops, plastic bags, water bottles, etc.? Not everything is quantifiable. The weight that crushes you may be unmeasurable, but you’re still just as dead. Brave New World in 5, 4, 3, …
Update David J. Theroux asks we have a read of “Hurray for Washington,” by Mary Theroux.