By James Kwak
You hear all the time that the government must get smaller. John Boehner said it the day after the elections: “We’re going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government.” Barack Obama agreed in part earlier this week: “We have agreed to a series of spending cuts that will make the government leaner, meaner, more effective, more efficient, and give taxpayers a greater bang for their buck.” And a large majority of Americans agree in the abstract (while simultaneously opposing any significant spending cuts).
Conservatives like to point to high levels of federal spending—23.8 percent of GDP last year—as evidence that government is too big. But the idea that there is one thing called “government”—and that you can measure it by looking at total spending—makes no sense. Worse yet, it can lead to fundamentally misguided policy decisions.
That’s the opening of a column I wrote for The Atlantic’s online business section. I’m trying out writing an occasional column for them. Today’s is about the idea that the total volume of government outlays or receipts can tell you anything worth knowing about the size of government — and the damage that is being done by people who fetishize the total spending number.
By James Kwak
One thing that all parties seem to be able to agree on is that big government is bad. It was President Clinton, after all, who said, “The era of big government is over.” And the current Republican budget-slashing wave seems motivated by the idea that our government is too big.
But what is the size of government, anyway?* When a typical anti-government person thinks of government, she probably has in mind the EPA, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the “jack-booted government thugs” at the the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, OSHA, and all those government agencies that prevent businesses and individuals from getting on with their lives. The idea here is that government intervention in the free market makes the economy less efficient and therefore reduces aggregate societal welfare.
Or: Why the Heritage Freedom Index is a Damned Statistical Lie
This guest post was contributed by StatsGuy, a frequent commenter and occasional guest on this blog. It shows how quickly the headline interpretation of statistical measures breaks down once you start peeking under the covers.
Recently, a controversy raged in the blogosphere about whether neo-liberalism has been a bane or a boon for the world economy. The argument is rather coarse, in that it fails to distinguish between the various elements of neo-liberalism, or moderate deregulation vs. extreme deregulation. But if we take the argument at face value, one of the major claims of neoliberals is that countries in the world which are more neoliberal are more successful (because they are more neoliberal). I disagree.
My disagreement is not with the raw correlation between the Heritage Index and Per Capita GDP. A number is a number. My disagreement is with the composition of the index itself, and interpreting this correlation as causation between neo-liberalism and ‘good things.’
My primary contention below is that many of these measures used in the composite Heritage Index have nothing to do with less government, and a lot more to do with good government. It is these measures of good government that correlate to economic growth and drive the overall correlation between the “Freedom Index” and positive outcomes. Secondarily, I will argue that many of the other items in the index (like investment freedom) are not causes of growth, but rather outcomes of growth.
By James Kwak
Last week Simon gave a talk sponsored by Larry Lessig’s center at Harvard. Afterward there was a dinner and then another question-and-answer session. Jedediah Purdy (another person to write a book while at Yale Law School; he is now a professor at Duke’s law school) asked a question that I have rephrased as follows (the words are mine, not Purdy’s; I may have also distorted his original question so much that it is also mine):
“You’ve criticized the government for withdrawing from the economic and particularly financial sphere and allowing private sector actors to do whatever they wanted. Do you think the government should simply act so as to correct the imperfections in free markets? Or do you see a positive role for government in determining what kind of an economy we should have?”
Edmund L. Andrews and David E. Sanger have an article in The New York Times today that is sure to infuriate some people, including me. Here’s one excerpt:
“Far from eagerly micromanaging the companies the government owns, Mr. Obama and his economic team have often labored mightily to avoid exercising control even when government money was the only thing keeping some companies afloat.
“A few weeks ago, there were anguished grimaces inside the Treasury Department as the new chief executive of A.I.G., Robert H. Benmosche, whose roughly $9 million pay package is 22 times greater than Mr. Obama’s, ridiculed officials in Washington — his majority shareholders — as ‘crazies.’
“Causing even more unease to policymakers, Mr. Benmosche insisted that A.I.G. — one of the worst offenders in the risk-taking that sent the nation over the edge last year — would not rush to sell its businesses at fire-sale prices, despite pressure from Fed and Treasury officials, who are desperate to have the insurer repay its $180 billion government bailout.
“But in the end, according to one senior official, ‘no one called him and told him to shut up,’ and no one has pulled rank and told him to sell assets as soon as possible to repay the loans.
“A similar hands-off decision was made about the auto companies. Shortly after General Motors and Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, some members of the administration’s auto task force argued that the group should not go out of business until it was confident that a new management team in Detroit had a handle on what needed to be done.
“But Mr. Summers strongly rejected that approach, and the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, agreed.
“‘The argument was that if the president said he wasn’t elected to run G.M., then we couldn’t hire a new board and then try to run any aspect of it,’ one participant in the discussions said. The auto task force took off for summer vacation in July, and it never returned.”
The political argument for this position makes sense. Basically, Obama and his administration are afraid of being charged with “socialism” or “big government,” so they are doing what they can to defuse this charge. (Not that that will help given the way political rhetoric is thrown around these days.)