Comparing Presidents – The Size of Government – Convoluted Measures to Make Republican Presidents Look Good

This post looks at spending by the federal government, subtracting off Social Security and the defense spending. And it does it two ways. One is as a percentage of GDP. The other is in real dollars per person.

Before I begin, a few comments. Regular readers know in the past few days I’ve been looking at federal spending, here in terms of number of Federal employees, and here in terms of number of Federal spending less social security as a percentage of GDP.

Now, as a liberal who is fiscally conservative, I really don’t care about the size of government. The question is – are we being made better off? At times, smaller government is the way to do that. At times, larger government is the way to do that. (As noted on numerous other posts, the fastest annualized growth rates in the economy (whether one accounts for changes in debt or not) in the post WW2 era occured under JFK/LBJ and Clinton administrations. One increased the size of government a lot, one decreased it by more than any other President by the two measures I’ve looked at so far.

But small government is an article of faith to our conservative and libertarian friends, not to mention our troll who has on occasion been acting almost like one of our friends as of late. And the fact that Clinton outperforms all the Reps, including St. Ronald the Most High Reagan, doesn’t fit with that faith. Fortunately, all is not lost… our friends feel the test is unfair. Spending should not include defense spending. Frankly, I’m not sure I agree…. it seems to me, for instance, that this is an argument that we should count GW’s spending on Afghanistan, as that is spending that was thrust upon him. The corrolary, of course, is that this means counting the spending on Iraq, which was not thrust upon him and is being run poorly, and that had Afghanistan been managed well, that war might well be over as well. Also, some spending gets spent no matter what… and could go into military or civilian pots. Example might include shoring up levees (had it been done) in New Orleans, or various types of satellites. But we aim to please here at Angry Bear, so I’ll do it.

The second problem our friends have identified … dividing by GDP makes Presidents that produced better growth look better (in their eyes) when it comes to cutting spending as a percentage of GDP. Since our friends don’t seem to accept the idea that that Democratic administrations growing faster in general was anything but a whimsical game of the gods, it is necessary to penalize those administrations that grew faster. Well, OK, as I noted, we aim to please… I’ll also take a look at things dividing through by population rather than GDP.

A final note before we begin… data on government outlays comes from OMB Table 3.1, data on GDP comes from OMB Table 1.2, and CPI for computing inflation comes from this table at the BLS. Additionally, to adjust for population, I used 2nd quarter population data for years until 1976, and 3rd quarter thereafter, to match the fiscal year ends. Data on population came from the BEA’s NIPA Table 7.1. But, as always, if you want my spreadsheet, drop me a line.

Anyway, assuming I didn’t screw up the data, here goes… First up, a graph of Federal Outlays less SS less Defense, all as a percentage of GDP…

And now a summary…

Clinton still beats Reagan. Even with a Democratic Congress. And what’s this? Carter coming in third? That can’t be right. But it’s OK. We still have another measure up our sleeves that will make Reagan kick some Clinton ass and put Carter in his rightful place – at the bottom. And here it is…. ladies and germans, the measure of what really matters to Republicans and Conservatives and Libertarians alike… (drumrolll)…. real (2000 dollars) federal spending not counting social security or defense expenditures, per capita.

And a summary…

Wait. No. Not possible. Every single President increased spending on non-Social Security and non-defense items per capita? And Clinton did it by the least? And he was actually cutting spending per capita before the Republican Congress took over? And Reagan increased this type of spending by more than three times Clinton? More than three times Clinton? And Carter came in third, increasing spending per person at half, repeat, half the rate that GW did?

So we have two options. One is that I made a serious mistake somewhere. Regular readers know its happened before, and will probably happen again. This isn’t my job, so perhaps I’m not as careful as I would be if there was a paycheck attached to the work. You’re welcome to check my spreadsheets if you want, or to simply grab the data and do it yourself. I’m confident if I made a mistake, someone will spot it. I’ll have egg on my face, and try not to make another one for a long time.

The other option is that I didn’t make a mistake. And if that’s the case, what’s the lesson here? I don’t know, but it seems to me that even on the one thing that is supposed to really matter to Republicans, that is unaffected (for the most part) by outside events, when looked at in ways that are intended to make Republicans look good, and when ignoring those parts and pieces that would make Republicans look bad… even on that carefully constructed measure, Republican Presidents don’t seem to perform better than Democratic Presidents for whom this isn’t a goal. I don’t know how to interpret this in any way except that Republican Presidents tend to either not be competent, Republican, or both. But then, I don’t vote for them.