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Big, Bloated Government Mostly a Myth

October 27, 2010 By Myles Spicer, Guest Commentary

It is fascinating how politicians can make outlandish, dishonest, unprovable claims, and offer them as fact. Both parties have their share of this behavior – but far-right conservatives are expert at it.

Among the statements and claims Tea Party folks and Minnesota conservatives constantly shout is that government is too big, growing at breakneck speed, and becoming bloated at the expense of the average taxpayer. Problem is, the facts do not support such a contention, and should not be accepted as “true” without some vetting.

A solid indicator of federal government’s size is its percent of spending relative to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While numbers fluctuate year-to-year, the federal government generally has not grown when measured as a percentage of GDP. In 2009, it was around 24%, which was one of the higher years. Remember though, the recession brought down overall GDP.

Vital programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are projected to lead to increased government spending. This is due to the country’s demographic shifts, not out-of-control government officials. The answer isn’t just cutting spending for these programs. It makes more sense to continue working toward a more cost efficient health care system so that we spend our dollars more wisely.

Let’s look at the federal workforce. As a percent of total employment, the federal workforce has gone down from about four percent in 1970 to roughly two percent by 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Looking at ten-year increments, we find that in 1969 there were 3.0 million federal civilian employees--6.5 million total federal employees (including the military). In ’79 there were 2.8 million civilians working for the federal government; in ’89, 3.0 million; in ’99, 2.7; and in 2009, 2.7 million, that’s fewer civilian employees on the federal payroll than 40 years ago. Moreover, federal employment including the military is currently 4.4 million, about 2 million total personnel fewer than 40 years ago.

“This downsizing has come as the government’s responsibilities have increased in size and complexity,” report’s Lauren Smith, economic research assistant with the Center for American Progress.

By both criteria, the idea that government’s size is exploding is a myth.

A further contradiction is the lack of specificity as to where conservatives wish to cut federal personnel. Border Patrol? The military? Veterans Administration? Homeland Security? All are conservative darlings. Where you might get an argument is staffing at the regulatory agencies. In 2010 alone, we’ve seen an egg recall that sickened people, a horrendous mine disaster, an oil spill that polluted a sea. In the last few years, we’ve seen unregulated Wall Street excesses that brought our economy to its knees. It’s tough to say our regulatory agencies are overstaffed.
All government entities, at all levels, have about 11 million workers (this includes teachers, firemen and police), only about seven percent of all eligible workers in our country are government employees at all levels.

In Minnesota, from 2002 to 2007 the total decline in local government employment per 1,000 residents was 5.3 percent. At the state level, the rate of employment decline per 1,000 residents was 2.6 percent.

Minnesota’s Price of Government (POG) percentage has long been a reference point for gauging the size of Minnesota's public sector. It is comprehensive and includes nearly all revenues generated by state and local units of government as well as public school districts. Federal taxes are not included.

POG demonstrates how public revenue in Minnesota has declined significantly over the last decade and a half relative to statewide income. Based on the most current report, the POG percentage has fallen from a high of 17.9 percent in 1994 to 15.6 percent in 2010.

The fact is state government is not growing as purported. Significant cuts are beginning to erode Minnesota’s prosperity. A more realistic approach involves progressive revenue increases.

Conservatives can complain that America’s federal and state governments are bloated and growing, and this condition must be stopped. But when you examine the facts relating to their complaint, it simply is not true. In a word, it’s a myth.

Data from CBO, U.S. Office of Personnel Management, and Annual Survey of State and Local Employment, and Minnesota Dept of Revenue

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    November 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

    Perhaps the conservative view of “keeping Americans safe” is just too narrow and too concentrated on police and military methods.

    I’d guess that the truth is that food-borne illnesses, bad water, bad air, unsafe products, and the lack of access to preventive health care kill more people every year than hundreds of 9/11s.