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Government size as philosophy

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I think, as Daniel Foster's update suggests, Jon Kyl's comment that tax cuts never need to be offset is exactly as fiscally irresponsible as it appears. But I want to respond to another part of his post. He agrees that Kyl's position is philosophical in nature. But so, too, he says, is the criticism of Kyl's comment. Favoring a larger government is no less philosophical than favoring a smaller government.

But like a lot of people, I actually don't have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people's philosophical preference for big government. But that's not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people's practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.

And for all that, the conservative preference for small government is weaker than it might seem. The size of government increased under both George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Tax rates decreased, but at the cost of higher deficits, not lower spending. In fact, spending jumped as well, in no small part due to increases in military spending. And the military is part of government. The only recent president under whom government shrank was Clinton, and he was no small-government conservative. He thought government did some things well and other things poorly, and he tried to emphasize the former and cut the latter, and that made him, I'd guess, like most Americans.

Graph credit: ChartingTheEconomy.com.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 13, 2010; 9:16 AM ET
 
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Comments

"The only recent president under whom government shrank was Clinton,"

A classic case of burying the lede. This should be the headline on the front page of the Washington Post, above the fold, every day for a month.

Posted by: Bloix | July 13, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

what Bloix said. And the movements in the ratio depend on GDP growth rates as well (which is mostly what went well during Clinton's years)

Posted by: bdballard | July 13, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

Government does do some things well and some things poorly. As voters, we get to decide (at least for the moment) which things fall into each category.

If voters decide that a central authority does not, for example, do a good job at health care, will the central authority simply step aside willingly? Or will the voters have to use some other measures, such as a budget axe, to vanquish the beast? Yes, it's a philosophical question: where does the line get drawn, who draws it, and who takes action when that line is crossed?

The "of the people, by the people, and for the people" aspect seems to be missing: it's almost as if the federal government is becoming an entity unto itself and expects to govern subjects. As an example, look at the PPACA, which even now hasn't garnered the support of a majority of citizens: why should a government be allowed to override the will of the citizens which constitute it?

Posted by: rmgregory | July 13, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

What Ezra never acknowledges is that defense is easier to cut when the threat to security is over. Communism was a threat to world peace and security and when the threat ended, Presidents Bush and Clinton reduced defense spending. Just as when the threat of global Islamic terrorism deminishes, defense spending will come down.

The type of spending that Ezra supports on social services is almost impossible to reduce... ever. The people get used to that type of income security. There is a big difference between the two types of spending. Ezra never acknowledges it.

Posted by: lancediverson | July 13, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

The type of spending that rmgregory supports on the military is almost impossible to reduce... ever. The military industrial complex gets used to that type of income security and perpetuates wars to continue to receive that funding. There is a big difference between the two types of spending. rmgregory never acknowledges it.

Posted by: saratogian | July 13, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

I think this reflects a more general problem: conservatives elites seldom acknowledge liberals true goals and motives, instead portraying them as motivated by a monstrous desire to destroy the happiness of conservatives. The elites perhaps come to believe this through self-deception. The rank and file believe it because this is what is said by the authorities they trust: the conservative elites.

All of this suggests that conservatives don't find the actual goals of liberals -- diverse and unrelated policies generally aimed at equality, sustainability, individual autonomy, and justice -- objectionable. They find it difficult to oppose the goals of liberals on honest terms so they invent better, dishonest ones.

Conservatives aren't terribly motivated one way or the other by liberals' aims, but they *are* motivated, negatively, by the costs of liberal policies. They can't put it so starkly, though, so they invent diabolical motives and ascribe them to liberals so as to motivate their share of the electorate.

Posted by: dfhoughton | July 13, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

just like conservatives shouldn't be able to pick and choose what departments of government got "shrunk" neither should you Ezra.

how bout if instead of shrinking Defense we shrunk the SSA, EPA or HUD.


And exactly how do you expect that European models of healthcare based in the US would result in LESS government?

Posted by: visionbrkr | July 13, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

The chart above can also be taken as evidence, at least since the New Deal, that government never stops doing the things it does poorly, it just keeps growing.

The Clinton years were an aberration due to the gridlock with the Republican Congress after 1994 and the tech bubble. If I recall correctly, there were a fair amount of continuing resolutions used instead of actual yearly spending bills that kept the agencies budgets at the previous years levels, plus inflation. Since the economy was growing faster than that, the share of government as a percentage of GDP fell.

Which isn't to say I don't give Clinton any credit for having good policies. The tax increase he did as part of his first budget in 1993/1994 didn't wreck the economy and it allowed the Federal Reserve to begin reducing interest rates (which kicked off the home mortgage refinancing wave, but that's another story).

From what I can tell Obama hasn't even bothered to try and keep this promise from his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in 2008:

"But I will also go through the federal budget line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work and making the ones we do need work better and cost less, because we cannot meet 21st-century challenges with a 20th-century bureaucracy."

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/28/us/politics/28text-obama.html

He came up with a list that was "just one-half of 1 percent" of the budget.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/07/AR2009050702001.html

Posted by: jnc4p | July 13, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

each side mischaracterizes the other to win debating points, though I think the conservative conventional wisdom has swun so far that they don't know what they believe anymore.

Posted by: Quant | July 13, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I think there are different ways you can favor a certain size of government.

Governments can be large in terms of size, but also in terms of scope.

A federal government funded with a flat tax on labor and capital income which provided a $1,000 guaranteed minimum monthly income per adult citizen, a $10,000 annual education voucher for children, provided funding for state operated public hospitals and other than that funded the military, justice, the FBI - maybe even transportation - and a few other agencies might be very large in terms of revenue and spending. But despite all of those functions it could have a significantly reduced scope if it did little besides those functions.

Right now the government gets into the nitty gritty details, and often gets things wrong, either via mistakes or political issues. For example, many liberals consider the failure to extend unemployment benefits to be bad policy. Should unemployment benefits expire at 26 weeks? 99 weeks? 150 weeks? Who really knows? There isn't really one right answer. Should Social Security retirement benefits kick in at 65? 67? 70? What about people who worked in manual labor jobs? How much do poor families really need to survive? Should we try to encourage homeownership via tax deductions for mortgage interest or having children via the child tax credit? Should we restrict how someone uses public assistance such as food stamps, even though we know you can trade food stamp benefits and for that matter use food stamps for food you were otherwise going to purchase anyways and use cash on other things? What about people who can't afford healthcare - should we try to redesign the system from the top down, or use consumer incentives?

It's all a big complicated mess. You could give adults a guaranteed minimum income and a way for all of their children to have ample educational resourcse at their disposal, and a system of public hospitals for those who are truly in need, and nothing else.

If people want more than $1,000/mo in retirement, they need to save - but they also don't have the government suggesting a particular date for retirement. $1,000/mo may not be a lot of money for a single mother with three kids, but without extra money there is a strong incentive to avoid becoming a single mother with three kids - and the fathers all have a known source of income to tap for child support, something potential fathers might not take lightly. And we may not like how Americans spend their healthcare dollars, but it is their choice, and the public system is available to those truly in need, and it is limited and won't bankrupt the government. We won't have to worry about cyclical budget swings forcing layoffs at schools, for as long as parents are happy schools will have the resources they need to keep open. We won't have to spend hours doing our taxes, since taxes will be flat and taken out of our paychecks like FICA.

Posted by: justin84 | July 13, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Visionbreaker: The Social Security Adminsitration has a very small budget and is one of the most efficient agencies in the US government, believe it or not. The EPA also has a very small budget, as does HUD. In fact, leaving out transfer payments (which is what I think you are decrying by wanting to cit the SSA), non-defense discretionary spending is only about 8-10% of the bedget if that. Moreover, at this moment Social Security benefits are entirely covered by the payroll tax, and even Medicare at this moment is entirely funded by the Medicare tax.

Defense is where the savings are because defense is such a huge part of our budget. I'd even argue that defense is the part of the budget that we are NOT willing to fund with taxes, given how much of the budget of agencies like EPA comes from fees. Furthermore, I'd argue that the threat of Islamic radicalism has rededed in the past 10 years and would recede even more if we pulled our troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq and got serious about finding siome sort of settlement of the Israel-Palestine problem. And just what is it that the Marines on Okinawa and all the aircraft carriers and intercontinental ballistic missles or the bases in Europe are doing to combat Islamic radicalism? Defense is where the waste, fraud and abuse are because that's where the big money is. And that's where the real savings are too.

Posted by: Mimikatz | July 13, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

MaimiKutz,

i was being facetious. I know that SSA, HUD and EPA don't get a lot of money but was pointing out that Ezra was targeting "conservative" issues for reduction like Defense.

Yes there's absolutely waste, fraud and abuse in defense. But its also there in Medicare and Medicaid? Any chance of you targeting them along with defense?

Posted by: visionbrkr | July 13, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

"The Clinton years were an aberration due to the gridlock with the Republican Congress after 1994 and the tech bubble."

No, the Clinton years were an aberration due to having a Democrat in the White House.

It's nonsense to suggest that the Republican Congress played a significant role here. The same Republicans we had under Clinton mostly controlled Congress under Bush and passed the most reckless spending we've seen in decades, from the Medicare Drug bill to Iraq to the top earners' tax breaks. Even "gridlock" didn't help--a slim Democratic majority in the Senate helped pass the first Bush tax cut.

And while the tech bubble helped close the deficit, it did nothing to reduce spending, so your point makes no sense.

I think this insight is key: "conservatives elites seldom acknowledge liberals true goals and motives, instead portraying them as motivated by a monstrous desire to destroy the happiness of conservatives...Conservatives aren't terribly motivated one way or the other by liberals' aims, but they *are* motivated, negatively, by the costs of liberal policies. They can't put it so starkly, though, so they invent diabolical motives and ascribe them to liberals so as to motivate their share of the electorate."

All these slogans are cover for the core agenda: rich people don't want to pay more in taxes. And they don't want the applecarts that make them rich upset.

So, they make up this whacked notion that Democrats want to "grow government," and do insane things like pretend there's a huge and meaningful difference between services provided by a government employee and provided by a government contractor. That this is some kind of vital difference in ideology and values that will decide the future direction of our country.

Say what you will about Democrats, but their principal critique of Republicans is that they don't care about anything but tax cuts for the wealthy, and they're totally unwilling to make any hard choices to pay for these cuts.

Republican critiques, on the other hand, are arguments about philosophy, American-ness, and commitment to socialism. They're not grounded in actual POLICY choices--they're debate society points about abstract philosophical notions. (and they aren't even philosophically consistent! The self described states-rights party wants the feds to outlaw gay marriage, and the people opposed to judicial activism put the "prcedent, schmrecedent" Roberts gang on the Supreme court!)

Ironically, the party that claims to hate the French is the most committed to philosophical arguments as the be-all end-all of governing!

It's ridiculous, and I am puzzled as to why they never get called on it. Say what you will about the Democrats, but they are engaged in the nuts and bolts of governing: tradeoffs and decisions. Republicans are governing like it's the model UN, where rhetoric is all that matters and actions don't have consequences.

Posted by: theorajones1 | July 13, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

"And while the tech bubble helped close the deficit, it did nothing to reduce spending, so your point makes no sense."

The tech bubble grew the economy faster than the government grew, hence as a percentage of GDP government spending fell (which is what the chart shows), even though in absolute terms (real dollar amount of the federal budget) it continued to increase throughout the ninety's.

http://www.cbo.gov/budget/data/historical.pdf

Regarding the Republicans in Congress, my point was not that the Republicans are more responsible on spending (see Medicare Part D) when they have full control of the government, but rather that recent history shows that the best strategy for reducing government as a percentage of GDP is divided government (one party controls a branch of Congress and the other the presidency) and gridlock.

Posted by: jnc4p | July 13, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

Congress approves budgets, not the President. Clinton never intended to balance the budget on his watch. It happened because of a compromise with the Republican Congress. If you remember the budget standoff between Clinton and Congress that resulted in a Government shutdown, the issue was spending, with Republicans wanting less.

Posted by: cummije5 | July 13, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

jnc4p, while it may be the case that the government doesn't stop doing things it does poorly, the chart doesn't show that. It may be used to bolster the argument, but you'd need more. It's entirely possible, based only on that chart, that goverment regularly killed off inefficient programs and just found new programs which it did do well or expanded existing programs which it was already doing well. Again, your underlying point may be correct, but the chart doesn't "show" that.

As for the post itself, I don't understand how people can so often either misunderstand or misrepresent Ezra's points here, other than the obvious charges of bad faith, but I try to avoid that. Ezra's point is that conservatives fequently talk about some philosophical difference between people who want small government and people who want large government, but this is a false dichotomy.

Conservatives may view small government as an end in itself, but few if any liberals view large government as an end in itself. As Ezra points out, there are any number of ways that liberals would agree to shrinking the size of government, be it defense, corn subsidies, etc. It's simply not the case that many or any liberals are pushing to increase the government in any way they possibly can because a bigger government is a better government.

On the flip side, in practice conservatives don't seem to really believe in smaller government across the board either. In recent history they have increased government spending and introduced new programs. Their major theory of shrinking government was to "starve the beast" by denying government the funding for its programs. They did not, however, pair back the programs which were funded by those revenues so they only succeeded in maintaining the size of the government while increasing the deficit.

And as I pointed out in the original post yesterday, shrinking government's revenues does not shrink the size of government unless it is tied to or leads to shrinking government programs, but that simply hasn't happened, even though conservatives have had plenty of time at the reigns of the government in the last 40 years.

Posted by: MosBen | July 13, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Visionbreaker: Yes, I would target Medicare and Medicaid fraud (which is almost entirely committed by providers not patients) and I have been a consistent advocate of reducing health care costs by reducing unnecessary procedures particularly at the end of life. I think that the patients are the least of the problem in Medicare rather it is the payment system and the incentives it creates. I don't think there is really much problem with Social Security that couldn't be solved with a little tinkering and expect as I've commented that life expectancy probably isn't going to keep rising given our health and environmental problems. I am a current recipient of both SS and Medicare and don't expect to live as long as my parents, who reached 91 and 96.

Posted by: Mimikatz | July 13, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

The problem with all this philosophical talk about the "size of government" is that it conflates government expenditures with the scope and repressiveness of government. You could run an totalitarian police state on half the current budget, if you ditched all social welfare programs. And its easy to envisage expenditures on Medicare doubling without any changes being made to the program--conservatives would would characterize this as a massive expansion of government. But the government would just be doing the same things as it always was, it would just be getting more expensive to do so.

Posted by: wkdewey | July 13, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

wkdewey, this is something that I do find somewhat annoying. Conservatives do seem to have an interest in small government as a means in and of itself, and that's fine. I don't see any benefit to one size of government over another outside of a discussion of what exactly the government is doing, but that's ok. Other people have other priorities. Conservatives also have some specific fears about totalitarianism from government, and that's fine too. I think there's some degree that caution is prudent, but I see little reason to think we're anywhere close to a substantial loss of freedom.

The problem I have is that they conflate these two as if they're either the same or at least in all ways inextricably tied. As you point out, however, the size of government need not be related to its repressiveness. Large governments (a term that is horribly ill-defined by its detractors) could be no more or less free than what we've got now, and small government could be orders of magnitude more repressive. I have to say that I don't even really know how to talk about this to conservatives really. It's such a muddled argument that my inclination is that it's primarily a political talking point rather than any really fleshed out philosophy.

Posted by: MosBen | July 13, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

"The problem with all this philosophical talk about the "size of government" is that it conflates government expenditures with the scope and repressiveness of government. You could run an totalitarian police state on half the current budget, if you ditched all social welfare programs."

Agreed. You could run a good totalitarian police state with a flat income tax of 5% - enough for a modestly powerful military and a well funded secret police.

Scope is very important. I'd be okay if the government just wanted to guarantee a minimum income, the funds necessary for decent schooling and make sure the improvident and needy had access to decent healthcare. It's the finely tuned ad-hoc programs and bailouts and tax credits, combined with the prospects of an impending debt crisis are what I'm less comfortable with.

Posted by: justin84 | July 13, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Somebody please list all these things the government does "well". How about the Post Office, the Department of Motor Vehicles, Public Employee Pensions...am I getting warm?

Posted by: kingstu01 | July 13, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

kingstu01, we could argue over what programs I think work well and whether you agree or not, but that's not really the point. The point is that despite your pithy comment there probably are at least a few things you think the government does well, or at least in a way preferable to a private sector equivalent. I've never seen anyone argue that we should private military, police, or fire programs, and people usually get on board for things like roads. National parks are pretty poular in these sorts of debates, as are the FDA or patents enforceable in a court of law.

But individual programs, services, or agencies are beside the point. Pretty much everyone agrees that there's some role for the government and some things the government should not do, or should do less. There's no side that wants big government as an end in itself, even if there is a side that wants a small government as an end in itself.

Posted by: MosBen | July 13, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

As a liberal myself, I see the liberal view as being that government action is a tool to be used when needed to help solve a problem, but that the goal is not to just have a government program. There are, however, others on the left, and some interest groups in the Democratic Party who do believe that government, or public, solutions, are usually better than private solutions. The public option debate seems to me to be a good illustration of this. To some on the left, it was viewed as a necessity to satisfy that there would not just be a single payer government insurer. To others like myself, and including, I believe, the Obama Administration, it was just a tool that could help control health care costs if it could be included, but it wasnt seen as a necessary part of health care reform and, therefore, could easily be compromised away for the more important liberal goal of universal affordable non-exculsionary coverage. For the liberal, what was needed from the government was a committment to subsidies for affordability and regulation of private insurers for universality and measures to help keep costs under control. Thus, the public option was something that could have been, and still would be, useful (i hope it may be added in the future to help control costs) but it wasnt a necessary part of health care reform. Unfortunately, I dont think liberals explain this very well and liberalism gets caricatured as pro-government which it is not. Part of the problem may be that as opposed to the time of the New Deal or even the Great Society, there is no significant left movement now advocating more government action that liberals can contrast with as a more pragmatic or moderate alternative.

Posted by: gregspolitics | July 13, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

@gregspolitics:

"As a liberal myself, I see the liberal view as being that government action is a tool to be used when needed to help solve a problem, but that the goal is not to just have a government program. There are, however, others on the left, and some interest groups in the Democratic Party who do believe that government, or public, solutions, are usually better than private solutions."

I'm late returning to this discussion, and most likely no one will read this, but I can't let this stand.

I would like to see your evidence, Greg, that the people who disagreed with you about the public option did so because they believe "government, or public, solutions, are usually better than private solutions." I think you're buying into right wing claptrap, at best, which, if you are a liberal, isn't going to help the causes you're interested in.

I myself believed the public option, even after it was watered down to little more than a token, was good policy. I don't know any currently living liberal, any liberal I've ever heard speak, who had a general belief that government provision of services was better. Rather, every time, *every time*, I have heard liberals advocate for government provision of some service it was because they thought this would be better than private provision *in this particular case*.

To repeat, liberals don't want bigger government. In general, like conservatives, they would like smaller government, which is to say, less need to find funds to pay for government services. But this is just a preference to be weighed against other preferences. Liberals prefer particular outcomes in particular cases and advocate for those policies they think will tend to produce those outcomes. The conservative view of liberal motives is mistaken or slander depending on whether the conservative voicing it is ignorant or dishonest.

Posted by: dfhoughton | July 15, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

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