What Causes Government Spending to Go Down: Circumstance or Ideology?


courtesy Mercatus Center

Above is a chart prepared by Reason columnist, Mercatus Center economist, and my frequent co-author Veronique de Rugy. Using constant 2005 dollars, it shows annual spending per capita between 1945 and 2012. Inflation-adjusted, per-capita spending is arguably the single-most accurate way to account for government spending because it takes into account both inflation and population growth. De Rugy writes,

The first Truman budget spent $4,312 per person. Government spending per person decreased for the next two years and in 1948 hit a historic low of $1,918—a low that has not been matched in six decades. Today's spending per person is more than five times this amount.

By the end of the Truman administration per-capita spending had risen back almost to the levels of Truman's first budget, and it continued to increase under the next few presidents. Kennedy began his term by raising per-person spending to $3,790. Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton all began their presidencies with higher per-person spending than their predecessors had ended with.

George H. W. Bush oversaw a decline in per-capita spending, which fell from $7,326 to $7,147 over four years. He is the only president since Kennedy whose last budget spent less per capita than his first budget.

Read and view more charts here.

Real Clear Politics

This is an interesting chart for a lot of reasons (it also an extended and updated version of an earlier chart). Certainly, it challenges any notion that one party is better on spending issues. It also challenges any general understanding of presidents past and present. Who knew Nixon was such a tightwad (he managed generally flat spending by cutting defense heavily), that Reagan was so egregiously an overspender, and that H.W. Bush really gave back what used to be called "the peace dividend"?

The biggest surprise of all, of course, is that real, per-capita spending has not just flattened under Barack Obama but has actually declined. Let's get the qualifications out of the way: Part of 2009 spending, which was George W. Bush's final budget year, is rightly recognized as belonging to Obama; spending is likely to boost up this year from last year; and all of Obama's years are among the very highest in terms of real outlays.

Yet it's absolutely the case that spending has flatlined under Obama just as it did under Eisenhower, Nixon, H.W. Bush, and Clinton.

The question is: Why does spending flatten at some times and not others?

courtesy LA Times

Part of the reason has to do with war. When wars end, spending goes down. 1945 wasn't just FDR's last budget year (due to his death) but marked the conclusion of World War II, an unprecendented effort in terms of mobilizing all national economic resources via the government. Truman was able to radically cut spending during his first years in office—and then cranked outlays up as the Korean conflict got under way (though it doesn't loom large in our collective imagination, the Korean War was a big deal in terms of troop size, money, and casualities). With Korea's cessation, Eisenhower was able to trim spending. Nixon may not have accomplished "peace with honor" in Vietnam, but he dialed back the U.S. presence and locked in our eventual withdrawal. As noted above, George H.W. Bush rebated the "peace dividend" that came with the end of the Cold War.

Part of the reason for spending restraint may have to do with divided government. Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and eventually Clinton all faced Congresses run in whole or part by the opposing party. Cato scholars William Niskanen and Peter Van Doren concluded in a 2004 study that "the rate of increase in real federal spending since World War II was lower during administrations in which at least one house of Congress was controlled by the other party." Noting that the biggest fluctuations in annual spending are related to defense, they further argued

We find it hard to dismiss the implications of a nearly 200 year old pattern in which the American participation in every war involving more than a few days of ground combat was initiated by a unified government.  Divided government may have the lowest rate of growth of real federal spending per capita, in part, because it has been an important constraint on American participation in a war.

So perhaps the war and divided-government constraints are mutually reinforcing. That would help to explain spending under Obama: Not only is he facing a divided Congress but he's overseeing the winding-down of military adventures.

Yet it's clear that there's some limits to the divided-government thesis. The Democrats controlled both houses of Congress when Bill Clinton took office and yet his first two budget years were basically as lean as any that came later when the "Republican revolution" kicked in. The divided goverment facing Gerald Ford didn't stop government spending during his tenure. And then there's George W. Bush, who managed to reduce spending in just one of his eight long and terrible years in office. He had a full GOP Congress for budget years 2002 through 2006 and he spent like you'd expect. But in his last two budget years, he managed to massively drive up spending despite facing a Democratic Senate. The bipartisan panic related to the financial crisis clearly overrode any partisan antagonism.

The one thing that seems clear to me is that the role political ideology doesn't seem to explain much at all when it comes to spending. Ronald Reagan ran as a small-government guy but increased spending—even beyond military spending—massively. Ditto George W. Bush, whose small government rhetoric masked a Texas-sized spending habit. On the flip side, Bill Clinton ran as a liberal and so did Barack Obama; despite serious differences, both were willing to spend tax dollars. Yet their spending patterns betray no increase in spending year over year. Perhaps any given president's desires are simply overwhelmed by other factors well beyond anyone's control. Clinton burned a lot of time and energy in his first two years trying to pass a massive health-care overhaul that proved so contentious and unpopular that it led to the unthinkable: Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. Was the Clintoncare debacle so distracting the goverment simply forgot to ratchet up spending levels?

Obama succeeded where Clinton failed in terms of health care and he passed a massive stimulus bill upon taking the throne. But surely the inability of the government to pass a budget for coming up on four years has made it next to impossible to actually increase spending levels. Continuing resolutions, bless them, make it virtually impossible to raise spending levels. Add to that Obama's willingness to follow the Bush administration's timetable to bow out of Iraq and it all starts to add up to flat or even slightly reduced spending. The fascinating thing about the current moment, really, is that the president, Democrats, and Republicans all openly want to spend more money than we currently are dishing out (yes, even the Republicans). And yet they can't seem to make that happen, despite their best/worst efforts. Government, it turns out, really is incompetent even at wasting money.

Unfortunately for those of us who argue that large amounts of government spending and debt smother economic recovery and growth, the simple flattening of government spending over the past few years doesn't really add up to a true pro-growth austerity package. There is a massive amount of regulatory uncertainty in the air (Obamacare, Dodd-Frank) and no clarity on fiscal or monetary policy either. While January's fiscal cliff deal settled most Bush-era tax rates, Obama is already asking for more hikes, the world economy is in the shitter, and we've got yet another debt limit right around the corner.

As de Rugy has definitively shown, austerity packages work best when they are heavy on spending cuts, not a mix of small trims and tax increases. Attempts to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio—the U.S. is currently above 100 percent with regard to gross debt—work best when spending cuts are not only explicitly undertaken but are deeper than anything we've seen. Such measures help spur economic growth by reducing expectations of future tax increases and currency meltdowns. As de Rugy and I wrote for Bloomberg View, the most successful austerity programs—including recent experiences in Canada, Sweden, and Great Britain during the 1990s and America's own post World War II boom—were more substantial and conscious than the drift we've seen over recent years in D.C.

Even if the sequester goes through as written, we're still way, way off from a true pro-growth debt consolidation package. But who knows? Obama is already late (again) with his 2014 budget plan, there's no reason to think the Senate Democrats will ever cough one up, and the GOP plan stinks on ice. Maybe we'll get to meaningful levels of spending cuts not because D.C. wants to but because everyone involved in bankrupting the country is either too lazy or incompetent to start spending your taxes.

NEXT: Tiger Woods: Obama Would Be "Pretty Good Stick" If He Played More Golf

Budget 2013 Budget Government Spending Barack Obama John Boehner War

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95 responses to “What Causes Government Spending to Go Down: Circumstance or Ideology?

  1. And, again, the dishonest attribution of 2009 spending entirely to Bush in the chart, as if Obama had nothing to do with it.

    1. The little tick mark at the top of each president’s final year takes that into account. The author also mentions that caveat in the text. I don’t know how you could better present this data without risking dishonesty in the other direction.

      1. Not use fiscal years. Use all the spending that was approved while that particular president was in office.

        1. So break it down by bills they signed? That would work, but I imagine it would take a lot more effort because you couldn’t depend on official OMB reports. Then you’d have to go into depth about how you decided which spending went with which president. Why go to this trouble when you could just do what the author did and hope that everyone actually reads the fucking article? If they aren’t going to read it, how can you expect to control what they take away from it?

          1. It could have been easily done by making the transition years half red and half blue.

            Producing misleading charts, the misleading nature of which is explained in one sentence buried in the text, is a common technique of unethical scientists and other writers for giving the impression they want the reader to have.

            1. How is this misleading? It says on the chart that these are fiscal years and the data comes straight from OMB. No matter how you display the data you can always find an idiot dumb enough to misinterpret it.

              1. The implication of the chart, whatever the fine print or technical definitions are, is that blue bars represent democrat administrations and red bars represent GOP.

                The whole point of making a chart like this is to make the data more visually accessible. If you have to read the fine print and look up the meaning of “fiscal year” and search the text for any equivocations to get the real meaning of the chart, that chart is worthless (at best).

                1. If you don’t know what a fiscal year is off the top of your head you aren’t going to get anything useful from a chart like this anyway. Welcome to economics. It’s clear this author assumed her audience had a certain level of understanding (as all authors must). Like I said before, you can always find someone dumb enough to misinterpret even the simplest chart. It seems you think this chart is targeted at people are ill-equipped to understand it. Well, I think people who read Reason and the Mercatus Center websites are perfectly capable of correctly interpreting this chart.

                2. None of this changes the fact that Bush was a big spender (and this chart doesn’t reflect deficits), mostly on unnecessary and/or tragically disastrous things, and that most of Obama’s spending can be attributed to the final disaster of the Bush administration, the financial crisis.

                  1. You mean Obama’s spending is attributed to rectifying the financial crises brought about by the CRA and Affordable Housing Rules?

                    1. Which financial crisis would that be?

                    2. The one to which you refer dumbass.

                    3. To be fair, the Fed, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac played even bigger roles in the financial crisis

      2. some guy, none of that offsets the overwhelming message of the color of the bar. At a minimum, give it diagonal red and blue striping.

    2. It’s not misleading. Bush and McCain gave us the “one time stimulus” 800-billion-dollar TARP abomination/budget, and Obama made it his new baseline.

      1. Obama also added ARRA to the baseline.

    3. This is really only important if you are trying to assign blame to one party or another. In my opinion, all that matters is that this clearly shows that we are currently spending way more per capita than we used to an by extension than we need to. This spending increase per capita is money taken out of individuals’ hands and by doing so reduces growth and justice.
      On top of that, some of this money is being spent on regulatory agencies, which further decrease growth and justice. That is what needs to be taken from the chart, not which party is worse. Besides, are we to believe that Ike shares much in common with GW Bush as Republicans?

  2. This is an interesting chart for a lot of reasons. Certainly, it challenges any notion that one party is better on spending issues.

    Because the President decides spending, alone, in a vacuum? Nick, are you really this ignorant or simply a mendacious fuck? Both?

    Perhaps there is no difference on spending between the two parties. This chart doesn’t show shit because the President is not a dictator. Did you know that, Nick? Yes, the President does not determine spending on his own.

    1. Did you read the article? He addresses that fact.

      Cato scholars William Niskanen and Peter Van Doren concluded in a 2004 study that “the rate of increase in real federal spending since World War II was lower during administrations in which at least one house of Congress was controlled by the other party.”

      But you have to admit that the president is the single most important person in the budget process. He has as much influence as all of Congress combined. He submits his budget and he signs the final budget act. With the stroke of a pen he could effectively force spending to remain steady, year over year.

      1. That doesn’t address the fact. Let’s see a chart of spending with Democrats controlling Congress vs. Republicans controlling Congress.

        Since this doesn’t make the anti-GOP point that the new Reason wants to make, which is that GOP is just as bad as Dems on spending and worse on “important” issues like gay marriage and open borders, I don’t expect to ever see such a chart.

        1. Jesus man get a grip. Think of how Democratic-leaning libertarians such as myself must feel.

          1. Democratic-leaning libertarians such as myself

            1. I was quoting T o n y

              Does Not Compute

        2. Let’s see a chart of spending with Democrats controlling Congress vs. Republicans controlling Congress.

          Absolutely. And it would be cool to see the bars split into defense, Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, interest and other. Isn’t a lot of the spending on entitlement programs that were passed decades before?

        3. Yes Tulpa, Reason hates the GOP and just loves them some Dems.

          I find it hilarious how the TEAM RED honks are all convinced that Reason is a bunch of Democratic hacks posing as libertarians, while the TEAM BLUE minions are all convinced they’re evil right wing GOP operatives

          1. Well it’s like how the libertarians think that TEAM RED is a bunch of big spending statists while TEAM BLUE is convinced that the GOP are a bunch of crypto-libertarians that want to get rid of Medicare, Social Security, all regulations and reduce Government spending to zero.

      2. He submits his budget and he signs the final budget act.

        Not in the last 4 years. He has, at best, signed CBRs.

        1. That’s exactly my point. The only reason Obama has not increased spending is because Congress won’t go along with it. If a president actually wanted to hold spending steady he could do it up until Congress was able to override his veto power.

      3. I should have said that the president signs all final appropriations acts, but I’m sure you understood what I meant…

      4. “He submits his budget and he signs the final budget act.”

        How many budget bills has Obama signed into law?

        1. “How many budget bills has Obama signed into law?”

          He signed one in 2009 and since then he’s been signing continuing budget resolutions. What’s the point of your question?

          1. “What’s the point of your question?”

            An attempt to get you to reveal that you are an asshole?

            1. Sorry it backfired on you. It’s hard to make someone else look bad. Easy to do it to yourself, though.

      5. “the rate of increase in real federal spending since World War II was lower during administrations in which at least one house of Congress was controlled by the other party.”

        This is why my only hope at election times is to end up in gridlock. Ditto for all other legislation. Read somewhere the other day some columnist complaining that this Congress has gotten the least done of any Congress in recent history with only something like 249 or so bills passed compared to 400-500+ bills in past cycles. As if pure numbers mean anything.

        1. Congress’ lack of ability to pass a budget has been wonderful. Any budget passed during the past 4 years would have increased spending and would have been happily signed by the Pres. It’s just too bad that terrible 2009 budget got through before gridlock kicked in…

          1. The House has passed budgets. Dingy Harry won’t even allow a budget to come to the floor in the Senate.

            1. The House passed that budget knowing that the Senate would not accept it. The Senate could have done the same thing, but chose to waste time on other stuff instead. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the House at least had the guts to do this, but the House’s budget left much to be desired.

              1. I don’t think they could. If the Senate could pass a budget to Reid’s liking, it would have been voted on. Reid was protecting BO from embarrassment and protecting red state Dem senators from having to vote for BO’s budget.

                1. True. Protecting BO was probable a big part of it.

          2. We’d all be better off if Congress just went home and stopped spending altogether.

            1. You know who else sent their legislative branch home?

    2. This is an interesting chart for a lot of reasons. Certainly, it challenges any notion that one party is better on spending issues.

      I don’t see that. I see three Republican presidents holding spending level (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush I) and only one Democrat (Clinton), and that one Democrat was the first to have an all Republican congress.

      What the chart does show is that Reagan was a phoney and Bush II was a big spender. But we already knew both of those things.

      1. I don’t see that. I see three Republican presidents holding spending level (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush I) and only one Democrat (Clinton), and that one Democrat was the first to have an all Republican congress.

        But the GOP has been reverently invoking the name of Reagan for decades now. I think it’s safe to say that he is the paragon of the modern party. Eisenhower may have been fiscally responsible, but the Eisenhower Republicans are long dead.

        1. In all fairness, Reagan was the only one who cut back on the regulatory state, and did so in a pretty big way.

          1. Yeah, but he increased defense spending, in a really big way.

          2. Actually, to his credit, Jimmy Carter passed a good deal of deregulation (a lot of which is now ‘blamed’ on Reagan by the Dems)

  3. Reagan, for example, saw Democrats controlling the house/senate for many years. There was also the Cold War military expansion and the tax cuts that actually increased government revenue (?), so I imagine there was much feeding at the trough of the government pig farm.

    1. I believe the GOP controlled the Senate for all but the last two years of Reagan’s time in office

  4. But in his last two budget years, he managed to massively drive up spending despite facing a Democratic Senate.

    Or is it that the Democratic Congress (not just Senate) drove up spending despite having a GOP president?

    1. I sure don’t remember Bush vetoing a budget from the Democrats – or any significant spending bills.

      1. And I don’t remember the Dems refusing any spending requests from Bush either. We can go back and forth forever.

        1. We can go back and forth forever.

          Which is why both major parties are full of evil spending addicts.

        2. Oh there is plenty of blame to spread around. That’s why there are many fiscally conservative former Republicans like me.

          1. That’s why there are many fiscally conservative former Republicans like me.

            Like Bruce Bartlett? Oh wait…

          2. Drake,

            The spending, and too much of the statist-when-we-are-in-charge mentatilty made me a libertarian, from a GOPer.

        3. I remember Dems complaining bitterly about how parsimonious the Bush budgets were,

      2. I sure don’t remember Bush vetoing a budget from the Democrats – or any significant spending bills.

        Actually, the reason there wasn’t a budget passed for FY 2009 until after Obama took office is because Dubya had threatened to veto the one Congress had put together prior to him leaving office, which was about $400 billion more than he wanted. After Obama took office, he passed the Dubya budget plus the additional $400 billion in spending, which is why our deficit that year was $1.8 trillion instead of $1.4 trillion.

        1. I blame Bush.

  5. Senator Fathers Child With Daughter Of Another Senator
    Former Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico fathered a son outside of his marriage more than 30 years ago with the then-24-year-old daughter of a Senate colleague, the retired Republican has acknowledged.

    The revelation stunned many who know the state’s longest-serving senator as a family man who advocated honesty.

    Domenici and Michelle Laxalt sent statements to the Albuquerque Journal identifying their son as Nevada attorney Adam Paul Laxalt. They said they decided to go public with their decades-old secret because they believed someone was about to reveal the information in an attempt to smear Domenici.

    “I deeply regret this and am very sorry for my behavior,” Domenici, 80, said in his statement, published in the Journal’s Wednesday editions. “I hope New Mexicans will view that my accomplishments for my beloved state outweigh my personal transgression.”

    Domenici and Michelle Laxalt agreed to keep his fatherhood secret because he and her father, Paul Laxalt of Nevada, were senators at the time she gave birth….

    1. Do as I say, not as I do.

    2. At least now we know what you get when you cross a Senator with the offspring of a Senator: a state attorney, not surprisingly.

    3. That’s all kinds of awesome! A boy grows up either without knowing, or being unable to acknowledge, his biological father in order to sustain a lie about honesty and integrity. I just don’t understand why so many people imbue politicians withe the authority to tell us what we should and should not do.

  6. Does the spending per capita take into account illegal aliens. If not, then if you include them the denominator increases and thus spending per capita drops.

    And remember that government spending is one issue. Regulation is another. Democrats tend to add more regulation. Surely the regulations and taxes of Obamacare (such as coverage levels, free contraception) will be passed on to regular consumers, who will pay higher premiums. Companies will raise prices just because they can. Shutting down coal plants means higher electricity costs. Even our exorbitant traffic fines are because we need to feed the pension trough. All of these premiums and fees are a tax too.

    1. Regulation is so much harder to quantify too. You could write an entire library trying to catalog everything we’ve lost due to stupid regulations.

    2. I believe more regulation was added under Bush than any previous president. Although I’m pretty sure Obama has surpassed him, at least on a per year basis

      1. But BOOOOOOSSHHHH!!! was a deregulator!That’s what the Occutards said!

    3. Have illegal aliens per capita been increasing? I guess they were just legal citizens before we had the current immigration in place. I wouldn’t think it would make a huge difference, but maybe.

  7. Haha. Here’s the last time where Nick posted (part of) that same chart. Notice anything different about 2009?

    Plus he makes the following claim:

    The Republicans seem to be the ones who ratchet up spending while the Dems solidify that amount.

    Doesn’t really hold water when you see the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Or GHWB for that matter but he’s on both charts.

    1. Even handedness is all well and good, but the party that created Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, TANF, SNAP, and half the current Cabinet departments definitely deserves the blame for high spending.

      1. A good number (if not a majority) of Republicans voted for a lot of those things Virginian. And very few Republicans today would vote to eliminate any of those things

    2. Also:

      He is the only president since Kennedy whose last budget spent less per capita than his first budget.

      Kennedy didnt do that. Only president since Eisenhower would be more accurate, even though technincally the other is true to.

  8. Spending is what drives government spending.

    Every period of flat increases or slight decreases on the chart occurred right after a war. Once the next Administration and / or a new Congress gets in, it’s off to the races again (except in Truman’s case when the next war came first).

    1. What war ended when Clinton took office?

      1. The Cold War.

      2. The Cold War and the First Gulf War both ended shortly before Clinton took office.

    2. Actually the 80th Congress was the last time there was a concerted effort to dismantle the socialism of FDR. For two years, conservative majorities in both houses fought the good fight. It was the last gasp of the Old Right.

      1. Lord knows what this country would have looked like if it hadn’t been for Taft-Hartley revision of the NLRA.

  9. Speaking about obscene spending…

    WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., holding back tears, entered a guilty plea Wednesday in federal court to criminal charges that he engaged in a scheme to spend $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items. He faces 46 to 57 months in prison under a plea deal with prosecutors

    Before entering the plea to the conspiracy charge, Jackson told U.S. District Judge Robert L. Wilkins, “I’ve never been more clear in my life” in his decision to plead guilty.

    Later, when Wilkins asked if Jackson committed the acts outlined in court papers, the former congressman replied, “I did these things.” He added later, “Sir, for years I lived in my campaign,” and used money from the campaign for personal use.


    1. And Reason for some reason has completely ignored this story. I think their drinking buddies in the mainstream media told them to.

  10. That chart really needs to stop using 2005 dollars and switch to 2011 dollars, at least. Honestly, does anyone other than shreik and a few other Obama fellators believe there hasn’t been any inflation since then? Yeah, it would take a little more math work and cross-checking with the BLS inflation calculator, but damn.

    In FY 2011, for example, per capita spending was about $11,500 per person. In inflation-adjusted terms, that’s about $3,300 higher than Clinton’s last FY 2001 budget.

    1. Year doesnt matter.

      It could be in 1892 dollars and chart would look exactly the same (just the numbers on the Y axis would change.

  11. What causes government spending to go down?
    How can you study something that never happens?

    1. I can make government spending go down.

      Genetically engineer a virus which is generally harmless to those under 60 but produces high fatality rates in those over 60

      1. And of course Rasilio would need that antidote badly.

        Also isn’t that what the Death Panels are for?

      2. Why not tailor it to attack only politicians (regardless of age)? That should do the trick.

      3. Genetically engineer a virus which is generally harmless to those under 60 but produces high fatality rates in those over 60


        Ooooo we could make it a respiratory infection and the name could rhyme with begonia.

  12. Another fun fact: the last actual budget surplus was in like 1957.

    1. lol Clinton had a surplus Right wing haterzzzzz

      Just like my parents do when they tap their 401k so I can keep living in the basement

      /leftist idiot

  13. The GOP has not been consistent with fiscal conservatism, but to me the main difference with the parties is the voting base. GOP voters are much more likely to say they want limited government. DFL voters never do. That’s why Rand Paul has a chance with the Republican party but would be feared and avoided like the plague by the Democrats.

    1. I disagree. If the base is continuously fooled, what does it matter? I mean most lefties love O and the Gang because he says what they want to hear while not doing what they want him to do. And on top of that, they are for affordable healthcare, so of course they are for the Addordable Care Act. It doesn’t matter that it makes care more expensive, they’re trying goddammit!

  14. How much of the spending increase of a given administration is put in place by an earlier administration? For example, didn’t Nixon push through a bunch of Social Security and Medicare increases that didn’t take effect right away?

  15. “But surely the inability of the government to pass a budget for coming up on four years has made it next to impossible to actually increase spending levels.”

    Does this mean that Reason will stop whining about the failure of the Democratic Senate to pass a budget and start praising them instead? Also, when will Tim “The Goddamn Sky Is Falling Right This Goddamn Minute” Cavanaugh write a column apologizing for the fact that his non-stop predictions for ginormous inflation and a collapsing stock market were, every one of them, entirely wrong?

    1. I had the same thought, but when mandatory spending takes over, this game plan no longer works. I actually wouldn’t mind the CBR and perpetual debt ceiling, if only everyone would just ignore it.

  16. So, if we’re spending more, how much more (or not) are we actually receiving for our dollars spent? If we’re going to bandy about numbers, let’s put them into their full context. . .

Comments are closed.