Kevin Drum Says Arizona's Fiscal Discipline Allows Obama to Spend Like A Drunken Sailor

Kevin Drum, looking at this chart...

.... concludes

Republicans like to say we have a spending problem, not a taxing problem, but the evidence doesn't back that up. Total government spending didn't go up much during the Clinton era, and it's actually declined during the Obama era. In the last two decades, it's only gone up significantly during the Bush era, the same era in which taxes were cut dramatically.

I have several comments about this craziness, but I need to preface it with an observation, an observation that I presume my readers have already figured out, unlike the willfully blind of the reality-based community.  This is the total of all government spending at all levels, not just Federal.  In fact, had he shown Federal spending (likely more appropriate given he is trying to draw conclusions about Presidents), the numbers would have continued up over the last few years.  Only a substantial decline in state and local spending has offset the increase in Federal per capital spending.  Which leads us to a few conclusions, starting with the most obvious:

  • Under our Constitution, last I checked, the President had exactly zero to do with local spending.  Obama actually was a sort of exception to this, attempting to prop up local spending, or at least to prop up union civil service payrolls, in the 2009 stimulus.  However, this is well behind us and all this did was put off the financial reckoning in state and local governments.
  • It is odd that Drum should claim this proves that all is well, since if it is so, it is due to a lot of governments, many of them majority Republican, following exactly the opposite strategy than the one he advocates.  In other words, they showed fiscal restraint, which somehow allows Drum to argue that Obama should therefore show lack of restraint.  I am not sure how improving state and local financial position by doing the opposite of what Drum advocates is a logical justification for the Feds doing what Drum advocates.
  • This shift in the spending mix from state and local to Federal is actually a fiscal disaster in waiting.  Local spending has far more accountability, where spending stays close to voters so that those who pay taxes can assess the spending's merits and effectiveness.   Further, most state and local governments must operate with a balanced budget and are banned from deficit spending.  The Feds have no such restraints.
  • The fact that many state and local governments live within their means does not somehow make the federal government's debauchery justified.  Seriously, this is like saying that Greece does not have a spending problem because overall EU spending has declined.
  • Even state and local spending is declining only because the government is on cash rather than accrual accounting.  If states do not fund their pension obligations in a year, realistically they are still incurring the liability, but cash accounting would show that spending is declining.  In this sense, cash spending is a poor gauge of the real health of state and local governments.
  • Everyone always shows these spending charts by red / blue President.  It would be interesting instead to see them by red / blue Congress.

Update:  Drum responds to others making similar arguments here.  He modifies the chart to include just federal per capital spending, and unsurprisingly, it is up steeply in the first year of Obama's Presidency but flatish (not down) after that.  Drum draws the conclusion that Obama's spending is OK because Bush's was worse.  Huh?  This is the bizarre tu quoque team politics game that drives me insane.  Bush sucked on spending.  Bush with a Democratic Congress in his last years sucked worse.  Obama has sucked.   None of this somehow proves spending is not a problem.

His chart says this:  Real (meaning adjusted for inflation) per capita (meaning adjusted for population growth) Federal spending is up something like 47% in the last 10 years.  Anyone feel like they are getting 47% more value?


  1. Matthew Slyfield:

    Congress is usually purple (a mix of blue and red). Generating different shades of purple by matching the mix of blue and red to the % of seats held by each party would be interesting.

  2. Mark Liveringhouse:

    The reason why government spending in the Clinton era went down was because of reduced defense expenditures that were already put into place by the previous administration. Looking at defense spending as a percentage of GDP, it declined from 5.8% of GDP when George HW Bush became president to 3.0% of GDP when Clinton left office. In other words, the reason for Bill Clinton's fiscal "moderation" was the "victory" in the cold war, not anything else.

    And, when Clinton left office there necessary responses to 9/11 that increased defense spending, which climbed to 4.4 under George W. Bush to about 4.7% right now under Barrack Obama.

    Even though I am a conservative, and this draws the ire of my conservative friends, we need to reduce defense spending. I believe that we need to target defense spending reduction back to the 3% of GDP level within 10 years. From there, we need to reduce defense spending down to 1.5% of GDP over the next two decades.

  3. LarryGross:

    re: " last I checked, the President had exactly zero to do with local spending"

    and at the Federal level, Obama cannot spent a thin dime without both houses of Congress approving it.

    Obama does not spend - Congress does.

  4. Solomon Foster:

    So let me see if I get this right. US population is 311,591,917 (that's about 18 months old, but close enough for our purposes). So (ignoring that it's actually all levels of government) if Obama reduced spending by $80 per capita, that's $24,927,353,360 -- $25 billion. Meanwhile, the federal deficit is around $1 trillion.

    So Drum is arguing that eliminating 3% of the deficit suggests we don't have a spending problem?!

  5. Daublin:

    One more obvious point: over the new year, Kevin Drum was among many who posted about the U.S.'s problems finding a way to pay for the budget it had come up with. Will it cut back to 2000s levels, or will it raise taxes? (Heck no, it will make a symbolic agreement that does nothing substantial.)

    As for how we got here, note that Obama, along with many Democrats, ran on increasing medical expenditures. Republicans have recently run on not cutting medical expenditures. It's a popular stance with voters, but now the CBO is saying we don't know how to pay for it.

  6. john mcginnis:

    One does not need to have a increase or decrease in federal spending to stay in the hole. If the premise starts out as a deficit, which we have had since WWII, it can stay that way forever. If we earn $2000 a month but spend $3000 a month and we do that for 60 years there is no increase in spending. But our deficit grows none the less.

    Drum is arguing about the rate of change in the spending. What he ought to be concerned with is the gap.

  7. john mcginnis:

    "way to pay for the budget it had come up with."

    Not to put a fine point on it, but what budget? Congress has not approved a budget since 2009 and the Administration will be late delivering their current budget request yet again for the fourth year in a row.

  8. NormD:

    Defense expenditures should be matched to the mission/threat not some percent of GDP.

    Of course, the defense budget should be spent more wisely. Reduce bureaucracy, Demand value from contractors, etc.

    I would love it if the next time some defense contractor quoted $10B for a ship, the DoD said fine, we will get a quote from the Koreans.

  9. LarryGross:

    well.. you don't need a budget to spend money just a CR and all that time since the last budget was done - the Republicans (as well as the Dems) have voted to not only spend money but spend at the rate in the last budget which was a trillion dollar deficit budget.

  10. LarryGross:

    yes. more than that - we need to recognize that what we have available to spend is about 1.5T - that' s it.

    you have to figure out how to stretch that between entitlements, DOD and the rest.

  11. irandom:

    It measures government growth divided by population growth which I don't like. It would be better to have three line graphs. Glancing around the web, it looks like our growth is pretty steady and BO maxed out spending his first year in office( although I hear the democrats didn't pass Bush's last budget so they could pad it more under BO). My interpretation given the previous sentence is that population growth has reduced things more than budget.

  12. nehemiah:

    All your points are great, but #3 is the most serious in my opinion. The folks are better able to manage state and local spending. Much more accountability. Washington is a cesspool and it only gets worse.

  13. Colin77:

    Krugman also pulled the same trick, ranting about federal spending and then citing total government spending data in support:

  14. bigmaq1980:

    Saul Alinsky #3 and 10:

    "In war, the end justifies almost any means"

    "You do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral garments"

    The want to manipulate the optics to "blame Bush" for Obama's failures, while simultaneously hiding Obama's expenditures as the "new normal". To be sure, deficit spending was a serious problem under Bush. Obama's WH has kick it up an order of magnitude.

  15. bigmaq1980:

    Usually true. One look at Detroit, or Rhode Island and we can see that even being closer to the electorate does not always work.

  16. mesaeconoguy:

    Kevin Dumb is a moron, part 66,324.

  17. Craig Howard:

    This graph doesn't pass the laugh test. Deficits are double what they were during Bush's administration, spending has increased, population has decreased, and GDP is stagnant.

  18. obloodyhell:

    True but the damage is local, not across the whole nation. I'd rather have a single skin cancer or two to be dealt with than have it spread all through my body...

  19. obloodyhell:


  20. obloodyhell:

    Walking through the whole place during the SOTU and shooting every 4th person at random would be much more effective, however... Hypothetically speaking, of course. One can dream, can't one? Where's Guy Fawkes when you REALLY need him?

  21. LarryGross:

    if you end up with bad local govt - the only excuse is a lazy constituency. Down Virginia way, we see big changes at the local govt level when voters become unhappy. It does work.

  22. obloodyhell:

    }}} Everyone always shows these spending charts by red / blue President. It would be interesting instead to see them by red/blue Congress.

    It's been done a number of times. And yes, it's what you pretty much expect -- it was the GOP Congress that kept spending under control under Clinton, not Clinton. And "Bush spending" only got REALLY bad once the Dems got control in 2006.

    Not to suggest Bush's spending wasn't an issue, but it's not like it's hard to find conservatives bitching about that, either.

    Also note this:
    Doesn't do anything with Congress, but if you look close, you can see it trended down with the early GOP Congress, picked up with 911, then leveled off, then shot up through the roof right around 2006.

    There are others which do a better job than either of the above but, despite running into them within the last couple weeks I can't find them right now. Will stick my head back in and link if I do.

  23. LarryGross:

    here's the truth:

    106th Congress
    Duration: January 3, 2005 – January 3, 2007Senate President:Dick Cheney (R)Senate Pres. pro tem:Ted Stevens (R)House Speaker:Dennis Hastert (R)Members:100 Senators
    435 Representatives
    5 Non-voting membersSenate Majority:Republican PartyHouse Majority:Republican Party

    please use CREDIBLE and AUTHORITATIVE links to support your arguments.

  24. LarryGross:

    here's the truth:

    106th Congress
    Duration: January 3, 2005 – January 3, 2007
    Senate President: Dick Cheney (R)
    Senate Pres. pro tem: Ted Stevens (R)
    House Speaker: Dennis Hastert (R)
    Members: 100 Senators
    435 Representatives
    5 Non-voting members
    Senate Majority: Republican Party
    House Majority: Republican Party

    let's be honest here.

  25. bigmaq1980:

    I think that explains voting at all levels, not just local.

    My only point was that point #3 is valid, but not sufficient for "good government".

    You are hitting on the point where we hit the "brass tacks" of the issue.

    Bottom line, in a democracy, we might not individually get the government we want, but --collectively!-- we get the government we "deserve".

    This is all a fundamental reason why I think we should keep government to a minimum with even stricter limits set into law.

  26. bigmaq1980:

    Just to add, I fully support the decentralization of power, putting as much as we can (of a very limited government to begin with) into the hands of the locals.

    Ultimately, we can then more easily vote with our feet.

  27. bigmaq1980:

    When I look at Detroit, D.C., etc. I keep seeing poor choices consistently being made by the electorate. Two conclusions:

    1. The left's tactics (legal, corrupt, or illegal) have worked to ultimately drive out of the communities any meaningful opposition.

    2. We define the enemy as "the left" but on closer examination it looks like most of those politicians are "opportunists" looking to abuse power for their own benefit - I think "leftist populism" is their "tool" to use to gain power through the electorate, not an actual "belief/ideology" they hold.

    I make point #2 as I also see elements of that on "the right". We tend to focus exclusively on the left because the contrast is greater in our minds, but we should mindful of those "in sheep's clothing" on the right.

    One flag for long has the individual been involved in "politics" (office holder, lobbyist/consultant, bureaucrat - all at more senior levels vs "worker bee" level)? Very applicable insight, be they left or right.

  28. bigmaq1980:

    Do you know of a source that splits the charts by each branch? Seems to me that mixing the two branches of Congress conflates responsibility. Should be three charts, the third being the POTUS, to get a true picture.

    I have not looked closely, but for intellectual honesty I would expect that the years are attributed/coded by the dates the budgets they passed were effective for vs the dates the majority were "in power" in each branch (i.e. the budgets that get passed are for the year following - also, major budget changes can happen mid point, so it gets complicated attributing "ownership"). This is a fair bit of work, and deserves a backup spreadsheet to show the process/justify the attribution. I did not see that with this link, or the link they provided.