Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Government Spending: 2x Inflation

On Friday, I discussed Steve Shay's recent insights on fundamental tax reform. Today, I want to circle back to some interesting numbers in Shay's article.

Shay notes that federal on-budget expenditures have grown from $807 billion (18.3 percent of GDP) in 1986 to $2.9 trillion (20 percent of GDP) in 2010. Tax expenditures were approximately $1 trillion in 2010. Thus, the sum of on-budget and "off-budget" spending in 2010 was approximately $3.9 trillion.

According to a report by the Tax Policy Center, tax expenditures were approximately $362 billion in 1985. (I can't quickly locate the numbers from 1986, which were excluded from the Tax Policy Center report.) The sum of on-budget and "off-budget" spending in 1985/1986 was approximately $1.2 trillion.

Adjusting for inflation, $1.2 trillion in 1986 dollars is $2.4 trillion in 2010 dollars. Had federal spending kept pace with inflation, the federal budget would have grown by approximately 100% between 1986 and 2010. Instead, the federal budget grew by more than 200%.

I don't have time to poke around the state data, but I'd be surprised if state expenditures grew materially slow than federal expenditures between 1986 and 2010.

Here is the question for the advocates of big government. During the past 25 years, federal spending has outpaced inflation by more than a 2 to 1 ratio. Are we all better off today as a result? Are the "most vulnerable" Americans and the middle class doing better today than their counterparts in 1986? Has the binge of federal spending increased the quality of life of the vast majority of Americans? Has the growth of federal spending increased standards of living commensurate with the resources tapped to fuel the spending?

If the answer is "yes," then how do you explain 9% unemployment? How do you explain the tea party movement and and nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests? How do you explain the frustration over the inter-generational burden that debt-fueled government spending will place on our children and grandchildren (and their children and grandchildren)? How do you explain the general public dissatisfaction with our political and business leaders?

If the answer is "no," then how do you justify demands for increased government spending? Can government spend more money to "cure" problems that are correlated with increased government spending? Government spending has increased at a 2 to 1 ratio compared to inflation over the past 25 years. Would we all be better off had spending increased at a 3 to 1 ratio? A 5 to 1 ratio? How much faster does government have to grow before before it becomes obvious to everyone that government expansion blunts the vibrancy of the private sector?

Ironically, the expansion of government spending has tracked the rising inequality of income and wealth distribution that so agitates the political left. The left does not seem to realize that bigger government creates more opportunity for business and individuals to capture economic premiums by exploiting the "regulatory state." How does a regulatory or tax attorney justify an hourly billing rate of $1,500 ($3 million/year at 2,000 hours/year)? Because he or she helps businesses and individuals navigate the regulatory state. How does a CEO justify compensation of $5 million or $10 million per year? Because he or she pays the regulatory and tax attorneys $3 million per year simply to navigate the regulatory state!

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