How Big is the Federal Government?

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.”

And nationally speaking, public opinion can differ widely on which programs to cut. The graphic below does a great job of visualizing that. According to the data from Harris Interactive, 80% of the public opposes cuts in Social Security payments, while almost the same number want cuts in foreign economic aid. Of course, it’s much more likely that we’ll see mass demonstrations protecting Social Security than demanding cuts in foreign aid.


Where Should the Nation Spend and Save?
The second problem is that the areas in which the government finds itself involved are so diverse and complex, that many members are wary of meddling in programs they don’t completely understand (political rhetoric to the contrary). The classic example of this is national security, but that isn’t the only one. The Post article points to 226 different programs intended to promote education in the “STEM” fields (science, technology, engineering, math). That number probably won’t decline, because the administration doesn’t have good data on which work and which don’t. So why take a risk of cutting something that might, in fact, work?

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.

Great political Indiegogo. Get real time updates about votes happening in Congress. And then let your Reps know your opinions as they go to cast their votes. 

6 mobile apps to get you through Election Day

Votifi - of course we can shamelessly self-promote, in the spirit of elections; also the only one of these apps to already be available on Windows8 [iOS] [Win8]

Polltracker - Poll junkies can keep track of all the polls they can humanly swallow with this one, via TalkingPointsMemo [iOS]

Adhawk - Provides funding information about the groups responsible for political ads, from our friends at Sunlight Foundation [iOS] [Android]

SuperPACApp - Similar to Adhawk, but provides additional information regarding the claims that an ad is making [iOS] mobile - Not a real app, but a slick, mobile friendly interface that allows you to check facts regarding the Presidential elections

Show of hands - a cool polling app that shows instant feedback on how people are voting around the country [iOS] [Android] [KindleFire]

Know any more good ones? Let us know @votifi and we’ll add to the list

Hot Get Out The Vote Tech (via @Techcrunch)

Some cool/creepy tech that’s helping to get out the vote today, via TechCrunch

  • The Romney Campaign’s Digital Brain: Project Orca
  • Organizer, a volunteer and canvasser logistics startup, brings UPS-like logistics to neighborhood get-out-the-vote workers, overlaying a walking path most likely to reach the important fence-sitting voters over a smartphone map.
  • Vote With Friends allows users to catagorize their friends into blocs of likely voters and message them with reminders to vote
  • Poll-Watcher, which monitors which Democrats stroll into the voting booth and then relays the information back to callers and canvassers, so that limited get-out-the-vote resources can be targeted to those who haven’t voted yet.
REBOOT AMERICA SUMMIT - Nov 8-9 in Washington DC

We will be pitching at the Reboot America Summit in Washington DC on November 8/9 along with other cool startups like POPVox, Ruck.US, ElectNext and NewsIT. 

The agenda looks fantastic. Steve Case (AOL CEO) is keynoting along with tons of other great speakers from Microsoft, OPower, Troopswap, Personal and the White House. 

If you’re in DC and want to attend you can register here. If you’re going to be there, let us know @votifi and we’d love to meet up. 

For the People: a soon to be released Facebook fantasy politics game

Attention foodies! Food & politics now on the menu at Votifi

By Lou Aronson

Today we launch a new category on Votifi: FOOD

Says you: “What in the world?!”

Quite simply, or at least it became simple to us when brought to our attention, food dominates politics in a way that very few other topics actually do.  Food cuts across boundaries and issues. Be clear: whether you vote for Obama or Romney, odds are you have eaten something today. And, for-or-against marriage equality? Obamacare? the DREAM Act? Isn’t it always better to discuss over a meal?

This week the Farm Bill comes back up for a vote. 230 years ago (in 1782) Thomas Jefferson observed that Virginia’s wealthy class ate fresh vegetables, but the poor did not, which he said was an “inexcusable” state of affairs. More than 200 years later food inequality is still a sad reality.  A short walk up and down the aisles of Whole Foods compared to a neighborhood grocery store in some parts of Washington DC confirms the myth that the affluent get to eat “good calories” while the poor are stuck with processed food and “empty calories”. In a democracy, eating well has never been a privilege of the masses.

Food matters the way issues matter.

About a month ago we were fortunate enough to meet world famous chef Jose Andres (@chefjoseandres) who asked us one simple question: All things being equal would you rather have a $3 cantaloupe or a $10 one? After giving the obvious answer, he retorted “you want to tell me immigration reform doesn’t matter?”

Clearly we were remiss in thinking that life is all about campaign finance reform, cutting the federal budget deficit, foreign policy and what to do about education reform. Whether it’s buying produce from local farmers over chain supermarkets, questioning the nutrition of your child’s school lunches, or protesting because your Big Gulp is banned in NYC, as Americans we are not only what we eat, but also how we eat.

The Washington Post published an essay tracking the production of a hamburger from start to eventual finish at a July 4th barbeque.  In celebrating America’s independence, however, consuming the average hamburger can be downright un-American. As odd as this sounds the author of that essay, Tracie McMillan (@TMMcMillan), had a great point we should all appreciate.

We offer you a new prism.  A new view to yourself and how politics interacts with your daily lives. 

Here’s to a new take on politics in America and we invite you to start digesting questions in the Food category.

Political Boxing: Obama, Romney, and sports

By Ian Rosoff

President Obama, a professed sport fan was hopefully figuring out how to fix the economy this weekend, but perhaps he tuned into HBO to watch the Pacquiao v. Bradley fight. And if he did, he witnessed a clear injustice. The fight was a travesty of judging even by boxing standards, and the decision made conspiracy theorists out of everyone and anyone who saw Pac Man knock Bradley’s head back and to the left.

With so much money on the line sports guy Bill Simmons suggested during his podcast that President Obama should come out against the boxing commission and vow to investigate the possibility of a fixed bout. Simmons may have been joking, but he did touch on one of the president’s advantages over Romney, Obama is the sports guy in this election.  

Obama fills out an NCAA college basketball bracket every year, and ESPN always covers how people are doing against Obama’s picks. He’s an athlete and he often has photo ops shooting hoops.

Romney’s image stands in stark contrast to the President’s. Somehow everyone imagines that Mitt’s favorite sport is polo or yacht racing. At least Romney likes to watch NASCAR with his friends, there’s a sport that his base can connect to. The only problem is that those friends are the car’s owners

Republicans have been fond of saying that President Obama is out of touch. This argument can be made convincingly, but not if it’s leveled by Romney, who appears to not follow mainstream sports, remember that republican debate when he said he’d be watching the national championship game that wasn’t on.  

Of course it shouldn’t matter that Romney might not be the biggest sports fan in the world, but it makes the ‘Obama is out of touch’ argument that much harder, especially because Obama loves basketball, football, and baseball. These kinds of distinctions don’t matter at all in terms of who should be our next commander and chief, but they do end up mattering in the minds of voters who watch ESPN not CNN.   

Psychology plays a crucial role in elections and somehow I think Bill Simmons is right, if Obama wanted to rap up the election today he’d simply have to call a press conference and announce that he was setting up a sports Czar who’s sole job was to clean up the sweet science of boxing, and after that the President could challenge Mitt to game of one on one. 

Social Media and Politics: Behind the Numbers

The impact of sites like Twitter and Facebook on elections is difficult to measure, in large part because metrics like “fans” and “followers” say very little about how ardent the support for a candidate might be among social media followers. It certainly doesn’t say anything about who among that follower base actually votes.

Anyone can click the “like” or “follow” button, but might not care about the messages being tweeted after that.  A candidate whose messages are being scrolled past and ignored is not achieving the success that his “numbers” may suggest.  Instead, it is perhaps instructive to examine other data points to get a better picture of the relationship between a political figure’s social media presence and his or her eventual success at the polls.

When it comes to the Republicans still alive in the GOP race, it is clear that Newt Gingrich, with 1.5 million followers, is the Twitter leader.  Mitt Romney has a meager 270,000 followers; next is Ron Paul with around 200,000. Rick Santorum seems hardly worth mentioning, lagging behind with only 85,000 followers.

The reality of the situation, however, is that Gringrich’s support is a mile wide and an inch deep, as this article on Gawker seems to confirm.

Twitter has a few ways of digging deeper into the strength of a social media following and not getting too hung up on its size.

Statistics such as average retweets per tweet and retweets per follower indicate how engaged your twitter folowers are with the message and campaign.  It’s like going around posting virtual signposts.

For example, despite the fact that Gingrich has more supporters than the next three major candidates combined, he is third in average number of re-tweets per tweet (45). Ron Paul leads with around 80 retweets per tweet and Romney is second at 50.

Retweets per follower tells an even more interesting story. Again, Paul is first, but Santorum is second with Romney and Gingrich third and fourth respectively. In looking at this metric, we see that, although not as many tweets are being retweeted, the [sometimes small number of] followers are dedicated to spreading the message of their favored candidate.  This, perhaps more than any other statistic, comes close to quantifying or ranking a candidate’s true level of support.

The more advanced Twitter statistics also seem to back up the claim that Twitter users engage more with Paul, Romney, and Santorum than they do with Gingrich.  Gingrich also stacks up poorly in mentions per hour and followers per mention.

Obviously it’s impossible to know how Twitter statistics will correspond to election results, but increasingly, campaign battles are fought via Twitter and Facebook, so an understanding of a candidate’s successes and failures in social media can give insight into how politics might be transformed by the Internet and technology.