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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Whose Federal Spending?

In the midst of a very sensible and useful article on why federal spending always seems to go up, Paul Waldman makes an important point about the disconnect between conservative rhetoric and the raw facts:

Our federal spending has increased by a few points in the last two years (from 20.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2008 to 24.7 percent in 2009), but it is still small compared to that of our friends in Europe. Of course, that doesn’t tell us what the optimal level of government is. Perhaps you believe that the French or Swedes or Danes, with a public sector about 50 percent larger than ours, are terribly oppressed by their governments. It’s hard, though, to argue seriously that an increase of 4 percentage points of GDP takes us from blessed capitalism to dystopian statist nightmare….

A big part of the problem, Waldman notes, is that Republicans have as many ´budgetary “sacred cows” as Democrats, most notably the defense budget. Beyond that, as the “pledge to America” demonstrated last week, most Republicans continue to shy away from serious Social Security and Medicare cuts, particularly so long as they can convince voters that ´”welfare” or “waste, fraud and abuse” or “bailouts” or “earmarks” are a vastly larger proportion of federal spending than they actually are.

Politicians can fulminate all they want about the $2 million earmark or the silly sounding $150,000 research project. But the truth is that government spending is going to continue to rise, because neither Democrats nor Republicans really want government to get smaller — at least not badly enough to cut it in a meaningful way. It can rise at a slower or faster rate, depending on the decisions we make (the biggest source of future spending is Medicare and Medicaid, a problem the Affordable Care Act begins to tackle). But no matter who wins the election this year, or in 2012, or in any other year, it’s going to keep growing.

It´s understandable that Republicans want to disassociate themselves from the spending booms of the Bush administration, but the plain truth is that they do not unambiguously favor a set a policies that would have led to a significantly different level of spending. And if, as some Tea Party activists and candidates demand, the GOP really does come out for smaller government by privatizing Social Security and Medicare and eliminating federal involvement in education and environmental protection, Republicans will soon find that the popularity of their anti-spending rhetoric will collapse faster than you can say ´”Barry Goldwater.”

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