by Gene Giannotta
A front-page article in the Washington Post yesterday looks at four types of data that can help us understand the size of government, and particularly how it’s changed (or hardly changed) over the course of several rough political battles over deficit-cutting the past few years.
David Fahrenthold provides data on federal government spending, employment, rules and regulations, and real estate. He also offers some political context and points out caveats that show just how difficult it is to properly assess the scope of government - and to rein it in.
For example, while the number of federal employees has dropped by about 170,000 since 2010, the official numbers don’t include contractors, a key part of that workforce.
But while these numbers sound big - and don’t seem to be a significant difference from where they stood three years ago - Jonathan Chait of New York magazine points out that Fahrenthold’s article fails to account for the size of government as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). Last year, the New York Times looked at the changes in this measure across presidencies dating to George H.W. Bush in 1989-1992. This was what Obama’s first term looked like:
source: The New York Times, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis
Chait criticized the Post piece for not providing appropriate context for the absolute numbers it cited, for example:
The Post story tries to bolster its case that the federal government is big by comparing it to a series of small things. We have the statistic that its workforce exceeds the population of 24 states. Well, yeah. There are a lot of states — 50 of them. Some of them quite small. Is it surprising or telling that the federal government employs more people than reside in its smaller states? The article proceeds to relay the shocking fact that federal government buildings collectively add up to “enough space to cover the District of Columbia twice over with cubicles.”
Is that a lot? Well, the District of Columbia is really small. It’s only 68.3 square miles, and the United States has 3.8 million square miles, so twice the size of D.C. would amount to 0.0036 percent of the landmass of the United States. That doesn’t sound so huge.
But even if we could figure out (and agree on) an objective and accurate measure of the government’s size, could we finally begin to shrink it or make it more efficient? Fahrenthold does provide some good context as to the processes that make that difficult.
First, the fact of politics. Many of the inefficiencies come from pork projects, special spending for districts or states which the members of Congress represent. As Fahrenthold points out in a discussion with Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA), the costs of these projects are spread out across the entire tax base while the benefits are concentrated. This means that “the beneficiaries…are the only ones who care enough to fight.”
But that gets us back to politics, because while duplication and inefficiency are targets of criticism by many politicians, they also worry about the costs they could incur due to streamlining processes. After all, a simpler government means their districts and constituents might get fewer benefits…not a good recipe for success on election day.