Historic United States Government Expansions

Discover how the historic American government expansions and downfalls may foretell future concerns.

| August 2017

  • To maintain our economic strength and assure continued improvement in living standards, we need to boost funding for vital public good.
    Photo by Getty Images/wildpixel
  • “How Big Should Our Government Be?” by Jon Bakija, Lane Kenworthy, Peter Lindert, and Jeff Madrick, presents a highly-charged subject — an expanded role of the government, that is central to our nation's future.
    Cover courtesy The University of California Press

How Big Should Our Government Be?(The University of California Press, 2016), by Jon Bakija, Lane Kenworthy, Peter Lindert, and Jeff Madrick, addresses the question to whether our government can grow any larger and examines how we can optimize growth and fair distribution to find a balance for our nation. The following excerpt is from chapter 1, “Can Government Help?”

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The size of government is the most fundamental axis of political disagreement in the United States. It has played a significant role since the Jeffersonian era and has been at the heart of American politics for the past eighty years, since the New Deal programs of the 1930s. It won’t fade from prominence any time soon, regardless of how ongoing debates about government debt, entitlement reform, and taxes play out.

Much of the contemporary American right, along with many nominally centrist deficit hawks, insist that our government is too big. They want it to shrink.



We believe it ought to be bigger, and if Americans can shed themselves of the baggage of the past thirty years of public discourse, we believe they will agree. Imagine how a proposal for the New Deal would have been received if it had been put forward in the 1920s. A decade later, however, it was commonsense. A similar new and vigorous extension of government, along with higher taxes to finance it, is now needed in the United States.

There are four areas where a bigger government can help. First, America has been underinvesting in infrastructure. To maintain our economic strength and assure continued improvement in living standards, we need to boost funding for this vital public good.

pwhenderson
2/27/2018 10:19:07 AM

Just noticed an error in the third paragraph. It refers to the right (and nominally centrists) as deficit hawks". With the right-driven, deficit-exploding tax law and the voting out of the deficit limits, etc., we know the mantra is not true. Although it is still bandied about as a thing, it's really never been. Pretending to care about the deficit was actionable for the right when they were bashing a left president but true colors have come out. Another thought, 54 cents of each tax dollar we pay goes to gross overspending on offense. We could cut our 'defense' budget in half and still outspend every other country. And then have tons of money for infrastructure etc. and start paying back debt. Thank you


pwhenderson
2/27/2018 10:19:05 AM

Just noticed an error in the third paragraph. It refers to the right (and nominally centrists) as deficit hawks". With the right-driven, deficit-exploding tax law and the voting out of the deficit limits, etc., we know the mantra is not true. Although it is still bandied about as a thing, it's really never been. Pretending to care about the deficit was actionable for the right when they were bashing a left president but true colors have come out. Another thought, 54 cents of each tax dollar we pay goes to gross overspending on offense. We could cut our 'defense' budget in half and still outspend every other country. And then have tons of money for infrastructure etc. and start paying back debt. Thank you


APWinWA
12/27/2017 6:00:06 PM

No comments on this? Probably the product of no one reading the Utne Reader, but I learned of the reader through a NY Times crossword clue, so I had to look it up. In essence, this article isn’t a critical look at the value of big government. It’s a piece that begins with the premise that big government is always good, and cites examples of big government actions that coincided with some instances of prosperity or advancement. None of this writing contains original thought, it seems more of a compilation of Facebook posts over the years that are bent to support a leftist view that is now dying on the vine. Where to begin with critique? For one, that the size of the government is THE dividing line between political views is preposterous. Were you even paying attention to this last election cycle? It was big government populism all the way. And the rhetoric of supposed “budget hawks” is simply that. There is VERY little appetite in Washington on either side of the aisle for shrinking government. Anyone who says they want smaller government really only means shrinking opponent’s government programs. All you have to do is look at voting records and the jaw-dropping national debt to see no one is serious about reducing the national government. That ship sailed 30 years ago. Also, there’s no real reference point, no context for any of the programs cited—it’s simply a conclusion that a program happened and the assumption is that it caused what happened after. But to what do you credit prosperity, progress and advancements that occur when there was no major government action (take the 99s boom, for example)? Shouldn’t that be attributed to the lack of a major government program? If it were really so simple—if unintended consequences didn’t exist and government action always produced a predictable boom—wouldn’t it be general consensus instead of one on which economists are wholly torn (not to mention the general public)? Yet this article makes preposterous claims such as the laissez-faire economy is a myth. That’s akin to saying democracy in the U.S. doesn’t exist. No one ever claimed our system is purely ANYTHING. But because it’s not pure means it isn’t AT ALL. This piece diminished the role of capitalism and the open market. It hints that without the government we’d have little progress. What of owns the light bulb, automobile, microchip? Insignificant, I guess, compared with government land grabs, highway building and silicon subsidies. I obviously disagree with the supposition this article posits. But more important, I disagree with the laziness of pieces like this. What are they for, really? To give liberal circles something to get fired up at cocktail parties? (“I was just reading this piece on Utne and it just thrashes all these small government people. I mean, what about The New Deal and Louisiana Purchase and blah blah blah.”) It doesn’t add anything to the conversation when you don’t EXAMINE the issue. Meaning understanding historical context and the gamut of opinion on the subject. A fair enough retort to my comment would be that I don’t provide evidence in all the ways this piece misleads. To that I say, it ain’t my job. That’s Utne’s job, you sheep. And it’s your job to be intellectually curious enough to look at other viewpoints (e.g., it actually ISN’T consensus that the New Deal has the effect this piece claims, and there are a lot of reasons to think so.) I digress. Ultimately, there is no mystery as to the role of the federal government and the rights retained by the states. There’s no question, there’s no ambiguity. We already know precisely what that role is because we have a ratified-by-the-states Constitution, which enumerates the federal government’s powers (meaning, it lists what the powers are and states that if something is not included, it means the feds don’t have that authority). The great tragedy is that our elected officials simply have chosen to ignore it, which means ugly things ahead. At the very least, it means unconstitutional executive actions that you don’t agree with (mostly because the executive wears the other teams jersey). And the worst of it is the day of reckoning for a national debt that currently runs ~$63,000 per person. So take your annual salary, multiply it by 6. Then imagine owing that amount while ALSO spending 1.3 times what you earn every year. How long do you think you could do that? But I suppose y’all didn’t calculate that into the equation of deciding that more government = everything is awesome.