In his State of the Union Address President Obama said:
Let me repeat – nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime. It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.
Let’s set aside for the moment the question that others have raised, the credibility of his claim that his proposals will not increase the deficit. Even if the President’s new proposals don’t increase the deficit they will still make government bigger because they increase government spending.
The deficit does not measure the size of government. It instead measures how economic resources are allocated over time to finance government spending. When we increase the deficit we reallocate some future income to today for government to spend. When we reduce the deficit we are taking less future income to pay for today’s government spending.
When the President says he won’t increase the deficit, he is saying he will not increase the amount of future income taken to pay for increased government spending today. In effect he is promising not to create an additional burden to raise future taxes beyond what’s in current law. He is not saying he won’t increase government spending today and raise current taxes by an equal amount, which is what we mean by government getting bigger.
As a fiscal matter we should measure the size of government by the amount government spends, not by the difference between what it collects and what it spends (the deficit). Suppose in our $16 trillion economy you were to increase government spending by $320 billion per year and increase taxes by the same amount. The deficit would be unchanged but government would be $320 billion per year bigger.
For the 50 year period before the 2008 financial crisis total federal government spending averaged 20.1% of GDP. CBO tells us it’s 22.2% this year and projects that under current law it will average 22.1% over the next decade. That means the federal government is and will continue be 10% bigger than it his has historically been, relative to the economy. If we were to use real dollars rather than percent of GDP we’d measure an even bigger increase. As a fiscal matter the federal government is and will be significantly bigger than it has historically been.
If you increase government spending you make government bigger, even if you pay for that spending with higher taxes. To make government smaller, cut government spending.
In addition to fiscal expansion the federal government has also massively increased its regulatory scope in the past four years, especially in health care and financial services. The President proposes that in the next four years he’ll do the same to the energy sector.
President Obama is correct that we don’t need a bigger government. Unfortunately, that is what has resulted from his first term and what he proposes for his second.