Friday, April 23, 2010

The political center : equal spending for all

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...

In today's New York Times, David Brooks laments the loss of the political center. "In the first year of the Obama administration," he writes, "the Democrats, either wittingly or unwittingly, decided to put the big government-versus-small government debate at the center of American life." The result is polarization, with a strong tilt to the "antigovernment right." Brooks, who is somewhat right of center himself, does not call this "mere anarchy."

Indeed, the internet is full of anger against what many people see as "a federal onslaught," but Brooks must be referring to spin rather than facts when he characterizes Democrats as the big government party and Republicans as the small government party. That, of course, is what Republicans would like us to believe: they have been characterizing Democrats as the "tax and spend" party since FDR's time.

I decided to find out just how committed to big government Democrats really are. I was sure they spent more on government programs than Republicans did, but how much more?

Checking the figures
To find out, I went to the Historical Tables of the Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2009. This 342-page document includes a mind-boggling array of statistics. The one that seemed most helpful in gauging the size of the federal government appears in Table 3.1, "Outlays by Superfunction and Function: 1940–2013," running from page 47 to page 55. The bottom line for each year shows total federal outlays as a percentage of the gross domestic product. This looked like a good indicator of the federal government's role relative to the overall economy.

First, I listed this percentage for each of the 74 years covered. I then put the 38 years of Democratic administrations in one column and 36 years of Republican administrations in another and took the average of each. Federal outlays under Democratic administrations averaged 20.5%; under Republican administrations, they averaged 20.2%.

OK, I wanted to be fair. These figures projected a declining percentage under President Obama. Since the future is unknown, I deleted the years 2008 - 2013, which were based on projections, and I redid the averages. Republicans remained at 20.2%, while Democrats rose to 20.7%.

That still didn't seem quite fair, since Democrats were in power during World War II when for three years federal outlays topped 40% a year. So I deleted figures for 1943-45, and I also deleted the Republicans' highest three years (all under Ronald Reagan). Now the Democrats' average dropped to 18.4%, while the Republicans' came to 19.9%.

Surprisingly, these figures show that, since 1940, Republicans and Democrats are just about equally invested in big government. If anything, government gets slightly smaller under Democrats.

Clinton, Bush, and Reagan

Well then, how about recent history? I decided to compare the percentages under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. There was quite a bit of government expansion during those 16 years - and it wasn't under Clinton. I made a graph to show what went on:

It's possible that the bank bail-outs and social legislation favored by Barack Obama will increase the Democrats' percentages once more. Fortunately, even with the increases under George W. Bush, Obama has a long way to go before they reach the average percentage of the fabled small-government Reagan-Bush era: 22.2%.

Under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the federal outlay percentage was higher than under any other Republican president since 1940 with the exception of 1970-71 under Richard Nixon, when it climbed to 22.3% and 23.3% respectively.

It was also higher than under any Democratic president with the exception of Roosevelt and Truman from 1942 to 1946, when we were fighting and recovering from World War II.

"In 2008," Brooks writes, "the country was evenly split on whether there should be bigger government with more services or smaller government with fewer services. Now, according to a Pew Research Center poll, the smaller government side has a 10-point edge." If the history of federal outlays has anything to tell us, Democrats and Republicans are equally in favor of government spending – as long as they’re the ones in office.

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