FRED Blog asks How big is the federal government? They show a graph of "Federal Government Current Expenditures" relative to GDP:
|Graph #1: Federal Spending relative to GDP (from the FRED Blog 23 June 2014)|
The graph shows the huge government buildup during WWII, almost doubling in 1942, and its equally impressive contraction thereafter. Since then, the size of the government has fluctuated between 17 percent and 23 percent of GDP...
Not my idea of fluctuation. For fluctuation see Graph #4 in yesterday's post.
Their question doesn't sit right with me. The question "How big is the Federal government?" is what you would ask if you were arguing that government is too big. It's a popular question. I suppose that's why FRED Blog addresses it. But it's not a good question. Myself, I'd rather try to get people asking better questions.
"One way to determine the size of the U.S. Federal government is to look at its expenditures," they write. "Of course, population and the economy have grown, so it’s a good idea to use a ratio to measure expenditures. For example, you can divide expenditures by GDP, and this is exactly what is shown here."
Reminds me. A few months back I remarked
why they always show debt relative to GDP is beyond me.
Two people, whose knowledge and thoughtfulness I respect, replied. Geerussell wrote:
I assume it's because looking at anything relative to GDP is convenient shorthand to get a sense of scale...
Jazzbumpa seconded that remark:
geerussell is right. It provides context.
I think those were knee-jerk reactions. I mean, I know it provides context. And if you think of GDP as "the size of the economy", it would seem to provide a very good context indeed.
But what if our economy is having troubles? I mean, what if economic growth has been slowing for three or four decades? Is "the size of the economy" still a good context in the face of secular stagnation? I don't think so. A slowing economy, as context, makes other things that are similarly slow appear perfectly normal. A slowing economy, as context, makes things appear to be growing that are slowing, but slowing somewhat less quickly than GDP.
One could argue it is the slowing growth of GDP that makes Federal spending appear to be growing too fast. It would be an easy argument to make.
Anyway, the FRED Blog graph uses the one data series that economists always use as a basis of comparison: GDP.
Oh ye of little imagination!