American Government Spending: 41% of GDP

October 20, 2011

My good friend Kathy Ruffing at CBPP takes me to task for testifying that government spending in the United States is 41 percent of GDP, which in my view is a very high and harmful level.

Kathy says that recent U.S. spending data is “exaggerated” because of the recession, and indeed, spending has soared not only here, but in most major countries because of the unfortunate popularity of Keynesian pump-priming theories. My point was that the American smaller-government advantage eroded both during the Bush growth years and during the Obama recession years, as seen in Figure 2 of my testimony.  

Kathy noted that the OECD data I used are different than U.S. national income accounts data published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Well, that’s right. Every country has quirks in the way they do their national income data. The advantage of using OECD data is that the economists at the OECD adjust for these quirks and create spending data that is comparable across countries. If Kathy has more accurate international comparisons, I’d love to see them.

Finally, Kathy says that just because American government spending divided by GDP is about 40 percent, that “doesn’t mean that government controls about 40 percent of the U.S.economy.” I don’t agree. She means that government does not produce 40 percent of gross domestic product, which is true. The broader figure of 40 or 41 percent includes not just government production but government transfers. And transfers do entail government control over resources because both the taxing and spending activities involved in transfer programs distort private sector behavior. Thus, the government misallocates resources both when it “produces” useless solar power activities in its own labs and when it subsidizes failed private solar companies.   

Anyway, thanks to Kathy for raising the important issue of the overall size of government because it is something that the policy community should focus more attention on. For data geeks, the OECD has all kinds of cross-country comparison data here. Government spending is Table 25.

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