The Role of Government

December 18, 2016

What role should government at many levels – Federal, state and local – play in our lives?  Some want a large role, some small.  Does the Constitution give the Federal government a diminished role in our lives? That is the viewpoint of those on the right side of the political divide in this country.  As Donald Trump gets ready to lead a Republican dominated Federal government, the debate burns white hot, as it did at the founding of this country.

Let’s turn the time dial back to 1936, the middle of the Great Depression, to appreciate just how much we depend on government today.  At that time, the unemployment rate had declined from a soul crushing 24%, but was still high at 17%.  The Roosevelt administration had ushered in many programs to alleviate joblessness.  In 1936, total government spending at all levels was $257 billion. (Dollar amounts don’t include what is called transfer payments like Social Security. and are in 2016 dollars.)

Eighty years later, it is $6 trillion, about 24 times the 1936 level.  Some might counter that the population has grown so, of course, government spending has grown.  The population has indeed increased, but only 2.7 times, far below the 24 times that government spending has multiplied.  In 1936, per person spending was $2,000.  Today it is $19,000.

During World War 2, government spending climbed six times to $1.6 trillion, about 25% of today’s level.  We are not currently engaged in a global war which occupies most of our economy as it did in the 1940s.  We do not have millions of young men in combat.  And remember, these figures don’t include Social Security, welfare and business subsidies.

Now let’s look at this from another viewpoint, one that might lead to a different conclusion.  Let’s look at government spending as it relates to family income.  According to the IRS and BLS, average family income was about $26,000 in 1936. (IRS and BLS See note below).  Remember, this was during the most severe Depression in our nation’s history.  So, per capita government spending was about 6% of this rather low family income.  Today, it is 33% of the $56,000 median family income.  So, we squint at these figures from two viewpoints and we are still left with the same conclusion.  As a percent of income and on a per capita basis, government spending has become a significant part of our lives.

When Republicans talk about smaller government, the “small” in that catch phrase should be kept in perspective.  At best, Republicans might want to lower spending growth to eight times, not ten times, the spending of 1936.  Those on the left might want to accelerate that growth to 12 times.  In either case, neither party advocates the frugal spending levels of 1936.  I should note that President Roosevelt himself was concerned that this low (to us) level of government spending – most of them his New Deal programs – was becoming too high.

The current fad is speaking in hyperbole.  Many daily experiences in our lives are awesome.  Our kids, our vacation, the latte we had yesterday – all awesome. It is no surprise, then, that we would  use hyperbole to describe those who don’t agree with our political views.  They are communists, or socialists, or capitalist anarchists, or [insert epithet here].  The voices of moderation are growing smaller by the year.

Half of the voters in this country want less government, half want more.  If each of us wants “our” views to prevail, we need to get up off our asses and pull on the rope in this political tug of war.  When “our” side gets into power, the other half has to suffer through it, and vice-versa.  This battle of ideas will continue throughout our lifetimes and – God Forbid! – we might even change sides.

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Endnotes

According to the IRS, only 4.3% of tax returns reported positive taxable income in 1936.  One out of 20 families footed the entire bill for Federal government spending. 95% of families had no federal taxable income. 

Real wage growth in the U.K. has turned negative for the first time since the 1860s.
(Bloomberg)

The most common job in a lot of states:  truck driver.  (NPR)

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