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Research Desk researches: How do the U.S., Switzerland and Sweden spend money?

By Dylan Matthews

As a follow-up both to Ezra's post on Jeff Sachs's desire to turn the United States into Switzerland and mine comparing government spending in OECD countries, Reihan Salam responds that he would, in fact, like to see the U.S. government spend more like Switzerland. What, exactly, would that mean?

As Reihan notes, Switzerland is much more strongly federal than the United States, with spending roughly evenly split between the federal, cantonal and municipal levels. If you're only interested in Swiss federal spending, and have decent French, here (PDF) is the most recent budget document; scroll to page 10 for a chart with the budget breakdown. Luckily, the OECD and CIA keep data on total spending, social spending and defense spending that takes those divisions into account. For comparison, I've thrown in data from a representative Nordic country, Sweden, to see how that alternative spending model compares. First, the basics. Here's total government spending, and total government social spending, across the three countries:


While Switzerland spends less than the U.S. or Sweden in total, it spends a bit more than the U.S. on social programs. Here's how that social spending, along with defense spending, plays out in the public sphere:


As you can see, Switzerland spends slightly more than the U.S. on education and pensions, slightly less on health care, and way less on defense, which one would expect given its policy of neutrality and its militia-model military. Sweden, predictably, spends the most in every category except defense. Of course, this does not capture the total scale of pension, health or education spending, especially in the U.S., where the private sector plays a bigger role in providing those services. So here's how those categories look with private spending added in:


Total U.S. health spending dwarfs Switzerland's and Sweden's, which one would expect. Interestingly, the U.S. creeps ahead on education spending with the private sector included, but Switzerland moves even further ahead on pensions, with the U.S. and Sweden roughly matched.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2010; 2:24 PM ET
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Since there was no research desk today, I'll drop my request here, as I don't think I'll have a chance to get to tomorrow's thread.

How does teacher tenure compare across the country? Most of my extended family are teachers, and my mother has been an elementary school principal in Washington and Oregon. According to her, she's never had a problem firing a teacher with well-documented short-comings. Sure, it's not something she can just decide to do on a whim some day, but if she's tried to work with a teacher to improve their performance and they are either unwilling or unable to improve then she's able to get rid of them.

Conversely, when I moved to New Jersey for law school I became friends with a high school biology teacher who confirmed the stereotype prevenlant in New Jersey that it's basically impossible to fire him after he got tenure. Indeed, until I moved to New Jersey I was unaware that grade school teachers *got* something called tenure, which leads me to believe that it's fairly different across the country.

So how does teacher tenure compare across the country? Is it true that in some states it is difficult, if not impossible, to fire teachers while in other states it is much more possible?

Posted by: MosBen | July 6, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

It's quite difficult and time consuming to fire anyone at any organization, but strangely enough, people don't seem to have many issues with finding methods and pretexts to fire those suspected of union organizing.

Posted by: harold3 | July 6, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"Total U.S. health spending dwarfs Switzerland's and Sweden's, which one would expect."

I'm missing why... Or have you switched from the percentage of GDP of the charts to total dollar outlays? Given the total populations, obviously the U.S. should spend much more on health care than Switzerland or Sweden. But I see no reason to expect the U.S. to spend so much more as a percentage of GDP.

Posted by: KenInIL | July 6, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse

we should radically increase public spending for post-secondary education.

AMERICAN GRADUATION INITIATIVE should be reconstituted; now, it wasn't totally killed off--about $2 billion was included in #hcr & it actually gets out the door more quickly than the original $12 billion 10-year plan--but still it should be implemented fully at some point soon.

consider our great big nation of one, california, spends around 40k per year per prisoner and a little over 10k per year per student.

unemployment rate for 4-year degree (or higher) is under 5%: for those w "some college" it's in the 8s.

both pearlstein & brooks have called for a Race to the Top-like plan to incentivize states to reform their economic models. i like that

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | July 6, 2010 5:44 PM | Report abuse

"both pearlstein & brooks have called for a Race to the Top-like plan to incentivize states to reform their economic models. i like that"


I'm uncertain how the federal government, which has been running deficits nearly continuously for three decades, creates a race-to-the-top contest for states to "reform their economic models" without provoking peals of derisive laughter.

And even if this idea doesn't fail based on pure irony alone, I am a little bit uncomfortable that such a scheme becomes too much of an intrusion by the federal government into the states' own affairs.

I think instead we may eventually need some kind of "automatic stabilizer" component for states' revenues, coming from the federal government to the states, tied directly to the rate of unemployment, to help make baseline state budgetary expenditures less directly dependent on the whims of the business cycle.

Posted by: Patrick_M | July 6, 2010 6:19 PM | Report abuse


care to elaborate a little on automatic stabilizer? or link to any wonking on this?

btw, joe klein called for a race to the top plan for state reform today too.

federalize medicaid

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | July 6, 2010 7:56 PM | Report abuse

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