Depending on whose sound bite you are listening to, government spending has gotten bigger or smaller over the last few years. Oddly enough, both sides are correct. It all depends on what statistics you are quoting.
President Obama claims that federal spending, under his administration, has risen at the lowest pace in nearly 60 years. His statement is accurate, as long as you remember that the 2009 fiscal budget is considered part of his predecessor’s legacy. As such, the $700 billion TARP bail-out and the $831 billion stimulus package occurred at the end of President’s Bush term, even though Barack Obama signed the stimulus bill and voted as a Senator for TARP. How does that work?
Part of the confusion lies in calendar versus fiscal year accounting. Before 1842 the federal fiscal year was the same as the calendar year. Since then it has changed several times and since 1977 the government’s fiscal year begins on October 1 and ends on September 30 so the spending in 2009 was pinned on Bush since he was president on October 1, 2009. I guess that is fitting since the cause and result of the financial crisis that continues today occurred while the Republican Party was in power.
Despite the Administration’s double talk, the fact is that 2010, 2011 and 2012 are three of only four fiscal years since 1945 that the federal government spent more than 24 percent of GDP in a single year. The Office of Management and Budget predicts that this year federal spending will hit 24.3% of GDP. That is about what the government spent in fiscal 1942, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America went to war in both Europe and the Pacific.
Before we look at spending today, readers need to understand that there are at least two measures of government spending. The one most quoted by the economic journals and politicians we’ll call “G”, which is how much federal, state and local governments directly contribute to economic activity measured as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is the sum of all the goods and services they provide.
There is also a broader measure that captures all the spending in government budgets. This figure includes all of “G” plus interest payments on our debt, transfer payments through programs like food stamps, social security, Medicare and Medicaid, unemployment insurance, housing vouchers, Veterans benefits, et al. As you might imagine, when you add all this into “G,” government spending, as a percentage of GDP, turns out to be closer to 37%. In comparison, the average spend since 1960 is about 32%
Now that is down from the 39% that it hit in the second quarter of 2009 when the financial crisis was at its peak. If we confine our analysis of government growth since then, government spending has decreased whether you use “G” or the broader measure.
However if you measure government growth from the beginning of the decade, when government spending totaled just 30% of GDP, then yes, government has grown by a whopping 6% in the last 12 years.
Beneath the statistics we can see that the government’s economic role has clearly grown larger and with it the power it welds. Its historical role as provider of public goods and services remains but is shrinking as more and more of government’s budget is spent on transferring cash and in-kind payments to taxpayers directly through programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
This is no accident. Remember that an entire generation of Americans is close to or already in retirement. Baby Boomers are tapping social security while experiencing mounting health issues as they grow older. They are turning to Medicare to answer their needs. And why shouldn’t they?
Throughout their working careers, these hard-working Americans, (who fought three wars for this country in their lifetime along the way), have contributed paycheck after paycheck to guarantee that when the time came, Social Security and Medicare would be there for them when they needed it. So, yes government has grown larger. It is the “why” of it that so many politicians conveniently forget.
As the government’s role in the economy gains force, so does its power. But power is agnostic. It can be used for good or for evil. We have seen how Wall Street has abused power. In my opinion, government spending that is used to honor its contract with America’s retiring workers is a proper use of that power. Whether this country can afford to honor its commitments is another story and a question we will answer in a forthcoming column.