The polite, well-dressed fellows at everyone’s favourite magazine, The Economist, have published a fairly terrifying article about the growth of government spending relative to GDPs. The beauty of reading a magazine written in another country—aside from how classy it looks in your browser history next to icanhascheezburger.com—is that when they say “government spending” they don’t just mean our government. It turns out that France, Germany, and especially the UK have indulged in massive spending sprees over the last few years, just like us. The governments of France and Britain are both spending over 50% of GDP, and the United States recently broke forty, prompting The Economist to declare, after clearing its throat and grimacing at the sound of its own voice, a new era of big government. That’s interesting and all, but the general movement toward Keynesian soft socialism is a trend of which we were already aware. What’s surprising is exactly when the United States started catching up to its European brethren.* Under George W. Bush, federal spending leapt from around 20% of GDP to 38%. Since 1992, the difference in spending-as-percentage-of-GDP between the US and Canada has decreased from fifteen points to a mere two, and we were damn near neck and neck the day Bush left office. Which is funny, because I don’t remember semiliterate mobs protesting the growth of government until roughly January 20, 2009. Perhaps that’s because of the steep jump in spending that occurred in 2008. Or maybe it’s because, like “family values,” “fiscally responsible” has become a trademarked slogan of the Republican Party, a truism that obtains only as much as we believe in it.
A quick look at the Economist graph shows that the only time the federal government hasn’t grown in the last fifteen years was under Bill Clinton, who was, as my mother is fond of saying, the best Republican president we ever had. Of course, Clinton achieved his spending cuts by winningly, empathetically telling the poor to go fuck themselves, hence his reputation as a centrist. While he preserved Clinton’s cuts to social programs, Bush presided over an enormous expansion of military and homeland* security spending, and is remembered as a far-right conservative. That he violated what is perhaps the central tenet of conservatism in more spectacular fashion than any president since Roosevelt apparently doesn’t count. The lesson of Clinton and Bush and their respective legacies is that, in contemporary American politics, “fiscally conservative” means conservative about social spending and social spending only.
Except sometimes it doesn’t even mean that. Let’s not forget that Bush added the enormous prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and expanded federal influence over state and local education with No Child Left Behind. He maintained the illusion of fiscal conservatism by lowering taxes, which is like trying to hide that you burned dinner by telling everyone how full they are. It was that combination of low taxes and dramatically increased expenditures that inflated the national debt, which is what everyone cites when arguing that government spending has gotten out of control. Regardless of whether it’s undermining our economy—as David Brooks and a lot of other people argue—that debt is what’s driven President Obama to cut spending to a significantly higher degree than his predecessor.
You read that right: President Obama has cut federal spending more than Bush. In his first year in office, Obama got Congress to accept $6.9 billion of the $11.3 billion in cuts he suggested, giving him a success rate of 60%. Bush, by comparison, only batted .150 in 2007 and 2008, though he managed to get 40% of his cuts in 2006. Obama still has a long way to go; his reductions in spending account for less than 1% of total federal expenditures, due in part to the mind-bottlingly expensive wars he inherited in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he remains an objectively more fiscally responsible president than Bush—just as Clinton was objectively more responsible than Reagan—especially in light of the three-year freeze on domestic spending he proposed Monday. That freeze would exempt Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the VA and the Department of Homeland Security, which is like saying you’re going to quit smoking except after meals, when you’re at the bar, during breaks at work and while you’re waiting for the bus. Still, it’s something, and if it doesn’t signal a willingness to make hard choices about reducing federal spending, it at least shows a desire to recapture the mantle of quote-unqoute fiscal responsibility.
Perhaps the savviest politician of our generation, Obama recognizes that neither party has a legitimate claim to financial conservatism. The difference between the Republican and Democratic parties is in what they’re buying with the money we don’t have, and in the case of the GOP—who have enjoyed the false public perception that they’re for smaller government since Eisenhower—that means planes and boats and exploding stuff. The next 1,458 savviest politicians of our generation are all Republicans, and they’ve managed to frame debate in such a way that “big government” means social welfare programs. That’s the difference between us and Canada, whose total government spending as a portion of GDP is comparable to that of the United States, but whose military expenditures come to 1.1% of their total GDP while we spend 4% of ours. Did I mention two foreign wars whose combined cost is currently $950 billion? Because those aren’t included in the official budget.
The trope that Democrats are tax-and-spend, big government liberals while Republicans are fiscal conservatives is a holdover from another time. Just as the GOP was considered the party of the black man for nearly a century after Lincoln, the perception that a Democrat in the White House will drive up spending is an outmoded idea left over from the New Deal. The truth is that both parties have dangerously abdicated their fiscal responsibilities, but only one still enjoys a reputation of hard-nosed realism. In fact, the nose of the elephant is soft and prehensile (yes!) and the continued perception that the Republicans will reduce spending is preventing the American public from getting what it wants. Political identities change, and the old conception of the fiscal difference between the parties no longer applies. It’s created a disjuncture between our rhetoric and our politics, but it’s also done something worse: hidden the real problem. Our government is huge, not in food stamps but in bombs. If we want to pay for a Canada-sized government, that’s our choice. But we should also take a look at what we’re getting for our money, regardless of who’s minding the store.