Despite ongoing federal deficits of more than $1 trillion a year, many liberals are calling for more government spending to "create jobs." At the same time, liberals are opposing budget cuts because that would supposedly hurt the economic recovery. And then there is the perennial problem of Democrats and Republicans defending spending on their particular favored programs.
With all these forces arrayed against budget sanity, it's time to take a back-to-basics look at the role of government spending in the economy.
Federal spending has soared over the past decade. As a share of gross domestic product, spending grew from 18 percent in 2001 to 24 percent in 2011. The causes of this expansion include the costs of wars, growing entitlement programs, the 2009 stimulus bill and rising spending on discretionary programs such as education.
New projections from the Congressional Budget Office show that without reforms spending will keep rising for decades to come. The CBO's "alternative fiscal scenario" shows spending growing to 34 percent of GDP by 2035. Thus, the federal government is on course to gobble up almost twice as much of the U.S. economy 24 years from now as it did just a decade ago.
America is becoming a big-government nation
Sadly, America is rapidly becoming a big-government nation. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compares spending by all levels of government among its 31 high-income member countries. This year, government spending in the United States hit 41 percent of GDP, meaning that more than 4 out of every 10 dollars that we produce is consumed by our federal, state and local governments.
We used to have a substantial government size advantage compared to other countries. But Figure 1 shows that while government spending in the United States was about 10 percentage points of GDP smaller than the average OECD country in the past, that gap has now shrunk to just 4 points. A number of high-income nations — such as Australia — now have smaller governments than does the United States.
This is very troubling because America's strong growth and high living standards were historically built on our relatively small government. The ongoing surge in federal spending is undoing this competitive advantage that we have enjoyed in the world economy.
CBO projections show that federal spending will rise by about 10 percentage points of GDP between now and 2035. If that happens, governments in the United States will be grabbing more than half of everything produced in the nation by that year. That would doom future generations of Americans to unbearable levels of taxation and a stagnant economy with fewer opportunities.
Government spending doesn't stimulate
There is renewed talk in Washington about further spending measures to try and stimulate the weak economy. That idea is remarkably naïve and misguided. It is now more than two years after passage of the $821 billion stimulus package in 2009, and it is obvious that that effort was a hugely expensive Keynesian policy failure.
The Obama administration's attempt to pump up "aggregate demand" in the economy simply hasn't worked. In Keynesian theory, the total amount of deficit spending is the amount of "stimulus" delivered to the economy. Well, we've had deficit spending of $459 billion in 2008, $1.4 trillion in 2009, $1.3 trillion in 2010 and $1.4 trillion in 2011.
Yet despite that enormous deficit-spending stimulus, U.S. unemployment remains stuck at more than 9 percent and the recovery is very sluggish compared to prior recoveries. Indeed, the current recovery appears to be slower than any since World War II, according to a recent Joint Economic Committee study.
Obama administration economists had claimed that the Keynesian "multipliers" from government spending are large, meaning that spending would give a big boost to GDP. But other economists have found that Keynesian multipliers are actually quite small, meaning that added government spending mainly just displaces private-sector activities. Stanford University economist John Taylor took a detailed look at GDP data over recent years, and he found little evidence of any benefits from the 2009 stimulus bill. Any "sugar high" to the economy from recent increases in government spending was at best very small and short-lived.
The reality is that Washington is very bad at trying to micromanage short-term economic performance. Its failed stimulus actions have just put the nation further into debt, which will harm our long-term prosperity. Harvard University's Robert Barro calculated that any short-term benefit that the 2009 stimulus bill may have provided is greatly outweighed by the future damage caused by higher taxes and debt.
The government's leaky bucket
Let's take a look at how government spending damages the economy over the long run. Spending is financed by the extraction of resources from current and future taxpayers. The resources consumed by the government cannot be used to produce goods in the private marketplace. For example, the engineers needed to build a $10 billion government high-speed rail line are taken away from building other products in the economy. The $10 billion rail line creates government-connected jobs, but it also kills at least $10 billion worth of private jobs.
Indeed, the private sector would actually lose more than $10 billion in this example. That is because government spending and taxing creates "deadweight losses," which result from distortions to working, investment and other activities. The CBO says that deadweight loss estimates "range from 20 cents to 60 cents over and above the revenue raised." Harvard University's Martin Feldstein thinks that deadweight losses "may exceed one dollar per dollar of revenue raised, making the cost of incremental governmental spending more than two dollars for each dollar of government spending." Thus, a $10 billion high-speed rail line would cost the private economy $20 billion or more.
The government uses a "leaky bucket" when it tries to help the economy. Former chairman of the Council of Economics Advisors, Michael Boskin, explains: "The cost to the economy of each additional tax dollar is about $1.40 to $1.50. Now that tax dollar … is put into a bucket. Some of it leaks out in overhead, waste and so on. In a well-managed program, the government may spend 80 or 90 cents of that dollar on achieving its goals. Inefficient programs would be much lower, $0.30 or $0.40 on the dollar." Texas A&M economist Edgar Browning comes to similar conclusions about the magnitude of the government's leaky bucket: "It costs taxpayers $3 to provide a benefit worth $1 to recipients."
The larger the government grows, the leakier the bucket becomes. On the revenue side, tax distortions rise rapidly as tax rates rise. On the spending side, funding is allocated to activities with ever lower returns as the government expands. Figure 2 illustrates the consequences of the leaky bucket. On the left-hand side, tax rates are low and the government initially delivers useful public goods such as crime reduction. Those activities create high returns, so per-capita incomes initially rise as the government grows.
As the government expands further, it engages in less productive activities. The marginal return from government spending falls and then turns negative. On the right-hand side of the figure, average incomes fall as the government expands. Government in the United States — at more than 40 percent of GDP — is almost certainly on the right-hand side of this figure.
In his 2008 book, Stealing from Ourselves, Professor Browning concludes that today's welfare state reduces GDP — or average U.S. incomes — by about 25 percent. That would place us quite far to the right in Figure 2, and it suggests that federal spending cuts would substantially increase U.S. incomes over time.
All the official projections show rivers of red ink for years to come unless federal policymakers enact major budget reforms. Unless spending is cut, the United States is headed for economic ruin. We need to cut entitlements, domestic discretionary programs and defense spending, as Cato has detailed at www.DownsizingGovernment.org.
Cutting spending would boost the economy because many federal programs have very low or negative returns. Many programs cause severe economic distortions. Other programs damage the environment and restrict individual freedom. And the federal government has expanded into hundreds of areas that would be better left to state and local governments, businesses, charities and individuals.
With the upcoming debt-limit vote, fiscal conservatives in Congress have a real chance to start turning the tide. If they don't stick to their guns, the "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" we celebrate this July 4 will become meaningless as Washington usurps an ever larger share of our incomes and our economy.