The front page of the Washington Post on August 25 had a rather unusual piece that attempted to show the problem of Big Government by…well, showing that the government was kind of getting smaller.
It wasn't hard to tell what David Fahrenthold was trying to show readers: Politicians talk about shrinking the size of the government, but lo and behold, as the subhead indicates, "Government's size largely the same."
The problem is that Fahrenthold gives us some strong evidence to the contrary, if you fill in some of the blanks.
He starts by telling readers the government will spend "$3.455 trillion," which "is down from 2010," but despite the Tea Party movement and Republican takeover of Congress that "is not down by that much. Back then, the government spent a whopping $3.457 trillion."
Pocket change, right? But as Dean Baker writes (Beat the Press, 8/25/13), those numbers by themselves tell you next to nothing–but understood in the proper context, they tell us the opposite of what the story is trying to argue:
Incredibly, the article does not even adjust this spending amount for inflation. (The piece does briefly note later that this is a 5 percent decline adjusted for inflation.) Of course, a serious analysis would have expressed spending as a share of GDP, which shows that spending dropped from 24.1 percent of GDP in 2010 to 21.5 percent of GDP in 2013. This decline in spending of 2.6 percentage points of GDP would be the equivalent of roughly $420 billion in today's economy.
The Post story moves on to another number:
Measured another way–not in dollars, but in people–the government has about 4.1 million employees today, military and civilian. That’s more than the populations of 24 states.
Back in 2010, it had 4.3 million employees. More than the populations of 24 states.
So the size of federal workforce is shrinking slightly. But as Jonathan Chait (New York, 8/26/13) argued:
Another way to put that fact would be that the federal workforce has declined by 4.65 percent over three years. Still another way to put it would be that, over the last several years, the federal workforce as a percentage of the population has continued its historic decline.
So the government is spending less money and employing fewer people–at a time when, as Chait points out, many economists would reasonably favor the opposite approach.
The Post goes on, but Fahrenthold's evidence seems to get weaker: The federal government spends "a vast amount of money"; there are "big-ticket programs" that evidently should be cut. And there are still more of these curious comparisons. The book of federal regulations is "now as long as 95 King James Bibles"–what would the right number of Bibles be, exactly?–and the government owns a lot of buildings ("enough space to cover the District of Columbia twice over with cubicles," in case that helps anyone make sense of anything).
The point of all of this is that things need to be cut. Fahrenthold signals this when he tells readers the government
is still so big primarily because Congress and Obama have largely failed to deal with programs such as Medicare, Social Security and food stamps.
Of course, anyone who follows how media coverage budget debates knows what "deal with" means. Those programs must be cut. Only then will government demonstrate that it is 'serious' about reining in spending that is, well, already being reined in.