Big Government May Be Unchanged, But It's Not Growing

Government spending remains stable, despite being at historic highs. One may as well call that progress.

Government spending flat, despite the dreary mood in Washington

Many fiscal hawks, particularly those who are legitimate fiscal hawks and libertarians, and not just masquerading as such to be anti-Obama, remain angered by the size of government and its spending habits.  Yesterday, the Washington Post discussed the the woes of big government, claiming that, while government spending has declined, it has only declined by about $2 billion.  Given that government spending is at $3.455 trillion, that is a pinch of sand in a sandy beach.  However, while libertarians and fiscal hawks pooh-pooh this trivial decline, they fail to see an important development:  That the growth in government spending has stopped.

Government spending chart, courtesy Washington Post

In this chart, we see the growth in government spending growing steadily during the Bush administration, especially with the creation of the "stimulus," used in the 2008 Great Recession to prevent banks from going bankrupt and destroying the global economy.  Under the Obama administration, the level of spending mostly stabilized, with only one year of increases in spending during the 2011 fiscal year.  It has been in decline since then, even though that decline is admittedly trivial.

Looking over the long game, the last time the government's spending was stable was in the first Clinton term, before he also started spending more.  Government keeps growing among all administrations, the last major decline in spending only occurring after World War II, and the last major period of decline being the Eisenhower administration.  That Obama can register a decline in government spending at all, even miniscule,  should be considered an accomplishment:  The last president who did that was Ronald Reagan, who still allowed growth continue steady throughout his term otherwise.

Now, granted, the libertarians may be onto something with this line of government spending being the new baseline, but that is an uncertainty at best.  Spending is certainly winding down on the Afghan War, and the Federal Reserve looks to end its bond-buying program.  Also, the problem of Republican gridlock in the name of obstructing the Obama agenda and gaining seats in congress has prevented any reasonable plan on the federal budget from moving forward.  The libertarians' solutions on the budget, which tend to be significant cuts on everything, remain pipe dreams at best.  So, at the very least, let's acknowledge progress where progress is obvious.

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