by Doctor Science
Public education, roads, police and fire protection, courts, life safety regulatory bodies and services(sanitation, clean water, food, public air travel, offshore drilling, etc) are miniscule gov't outlays. Add in national defense, and it's still easily affordable.That can't be right, I thought. What are the *real* figures?
Research happened. Most of the first Google results for "total government spending" and similar go to usgovernmentspending.com, a self-described "conservative" site that's nicely data-heavy, but makes some odd choices -- like making "pensions" a separate category. I went to the OECD and pulled some numbers for *total* government spending -- that is, Federal plus state plus local. Going to the OECD means we can readily compare the US with other countries.
Summary: Many of the problems Americans think of as being characteristic of government per se (e.g. inefficiency and waste) seem to actually be specific to government in the United States. Overall, US government is either exceptionally inefficient, exceptionally ill-targeted, or exceptionally corrupt. Or a combination of all three.
Total spending at all levels of government for 2008
My calculations should be visible on GoogleDocs; let me know if you spot any problems.
I picked these countries to compare to the US:
- Japan and Germany, because they are the next most populous OECD countries (after the US)
- the UK, because it is the next most populous English-speaking country, and is presumably fairly culturally similar to the US
- Sweden, because it is the most populous Scandinavian country, a region which has consistently high quality of life
At first I looked at 2010 data, but then I switch to 2008 because
- it's before the world-wide recession, so reflects a non-crisis set of priorities
- it's before Obama, so we won't be distracted about talking about his administration's priorities
A number of points jump out at me as I look at these charts:
- The US spends *enormously* more than other countries do on violence and coercion. As Andrew Bacevich keeps pointing out but no-one in Washington is willing to admit, U.S. military outlays today equal that of every other nation on the planet combined. The US also has the world's highest incarceration rate. Public order and national defense are clear, legitimate governmental functions, but the US is clearly *much* worse than other countries at achieving them for a reasonable cost.
- As I already knew, health care in the US is *much* more expensive than in other countries, and it's getting more expensive faster. These other countries spend 13-17% of their public outlay on health care, and *everyone* gets access. The US spends over 20% and lots of people are still uncovered -- so US life expectancy is lower and infant mortality higher. We pay more for health care, but we get less.
- What I wasn't expecting is that public education spending is higher in the US -- 16.5% of the budget, instead of 9-13.5%. I wonder if the fact that US education primary & secondary education is mostly funded at the local or state level drives up costs, because of the immense duplication of effort and loss of economies of scale. In NJ, for instance, there are 600 school districts, which is extremely inefficient and costly. Just try getting them to consolidate, though ...
- I confess, I was surprised at how *big* the safety net is in other countries, how much of a commitment they've made to supporting the bottom 20% of the income distribution. I do not think it coincidence that, at the time of the Founders, the bottom 20% of the US income distribution was made up of people who didn't own property -- because they *were* property.
Lane Kenworthy points out that US "social spending" is actually much higher than it looks, because much of it is in the form of tax breaks (especially deductions for mortgage interest, employer health insurance, and pension plan contributions). The net result is that US social spending doesn't just go to the poor or unlucky, it also goes to the comfortable middle class.
In addition to government spending priorities, there's the matter of government spending levels. For this comparison, I was able to include figures from Canada.
I've arranged this table to be in order of decreasing population, because one factor in costs should be economies of scale. When I threw together a chart of OECD countries, not including the US or the most sickly parts of southern Europe (Portugal, Greece, Spain), and graphed their 2008 spending per population:
the regression coefficient (r²) is 0.37, which is *something* but no great shakes. However, we do see that for the countries I'm considering, there *is* a clear relationship between population size and government spending: smaller countries spend more.
Since the US is by far the largest of the OECD countries, our government spending per capita should be among the lowest. This is clearly not the case. I can think of
three four possible reasons, which may be acting together:
- Federalism and local control. Many important government functions, especially education, which are handled at the national level in other countries are controlled at the state and even local level in the US. This is bound to undercut economies of scale.
- Poor priorities. This is particularly obvious in our military spending, which is grotesquely large compared to every other country in the world, but which doesn't seem to be politically controllable.
- Corruption. By this I don't mean (just) straightforward bribery. I'm also thinking of things like campaign contributions, the revolving door between public and private work, crony capitalism, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and Medicare Part D. I know a lot about this in the US, not much about how it works in other countries. Certainly Japan, at least, has a reputation for cozy deals and crony capitalism, but it doesn't seem to be enough to degrade how much government they get for a dollar.
- Resistance to the idea of government. No-one does a good job when they think the job itself is a bad idea. Many Americans -- including most Republicans, these days -- resist the very idea of government, and have no respect for people doing non-violent government jobs. This will obviously create a lot of friction in the system, making every task slower, more inefficient, and thus more expensive.
This should give you plenty to talk about.