Friday, August 5, 2011

Understanding the Size of the Federal Beast

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
            —Roy Scheider as Chief Martin Brody in Jaws

Following up on Monday’s discussion about the debt ceiling talks, I wanted to see if we can (please pardon the pun) get our arms around just how big the Beast that is the U.S. federal government has become.  If you don’t believe it’s out of control, consider the following.

As we’ve covered, in 2010 the Beast consumed $3.4 trillion.  That’s $3,400,000,000,000, to see the number in print.  Or, to put it another way, that’s not quite three-and-a-half million millions.  That’s not a typo.  Millions of millions. 

I’m going to let that sink in.

According to, ONE trillion dollars would be a stack of $1,000 bills (I’m told that’s the one with Grover Cleveland, of all people, on it, but I’ve never actually seen one) laying flat on top of each other, not stretched end-to-end, nearly 68 miles high.  That’s over twelve Mount Everests.  The federal government spends about three-and-a-half of those stacks every year, or a single stack of $1,000 bills over 200 miles high.  So the Beast’s 2010 consumption, expressed in $1,000 bills, would be a stack reaching almost all the way to the Hubble Telescope.  Who needs NASA when you can climb this kind of a beanstalk to get there?  Only trouble is the goose can’t keep laying the golden eggs.

Let’s put it in perspective.  In 1960, the Beast consumed approximately $92 billion, or about 2.5% of what it does today.  In 1980, it consumed $590 billion, or around 17% of its current pace.  In 2000, the Beast consumed about $1.7 trillion, or about half of what it consumes today.  During the 50 years since 1960, the population has not quite doubled from 172 million to 308 million, yet the Beast’s consumption has increased nearly 40-fold.  In per capita terms, the Beast has gone from consuming about $500 per person per year, to consuming about $11,000 for every man, woman, and child in the U.S. every single year.  It has gone from consuming around 17% of U.S. GDP annually to consuming nearly 25%.  According to the International Monetary Fund, the Beast’s 2010 consumption exceeded the GDP of every country on Earth except the European Union (as a collective group), U.S., China, and Japan.  The Beast consumed more than the GDPs of Germany and the U.K., and more than double the GDP of India.  In fact, in 2010 the Beast consumed nearly 6 cents of every dollar of production of the entire planet combined.

Consider the following six Cabinet-level agencies, what they spend, and what they purport to do:

·       Department of Agriculture (including USDA)--$130,000,000,000, about the GDP of Kuwait;

·       Department of Labor-- $126,000,000,000, just about the GDP of Hungary;

·       Department of Health & Human Services--$ 78,000,000,000, similar to the GDP of Libya;

·       Department of Education-- $ 70,000,000,000, a little more than the GDP of Sudan;

·       Department of Housing and Urban Development-- $ 43,000,000,000, close to the GDP of Tunisia;

·       Department of Energy--$ 27,000,000,000, roughly the GDP of Jordan.

Each of these sectors of the Beast alone consumes as much as a mid-size country.  Together they total approximately $474 billion in federal consumption every single year.  But as Billy Joel asked in Moving Out, “Is that all you get for your money?”  As far as I can tell, the Department of Education doesn’t educate anybody, the Department of Energy doesn’t do anything but prevent the production of energy, the Department of Agriculture mostly pays people not to grow stuff, and the Department of Labor doesn’t work. I have no idea what HHS and HUD do, but can it really cost $120 billion between them to do it?

And, of course, all of this spending is the direct cause of our massive debt.  Just how massive?  With the rise in the debt ceiling, federal public debt has now passed $14.5 trillion (that’s a stack of $1,000 bills about 970 miles high, for those who were wondering).  According to the CIA Factbook, in 2010 U.S. public debt was 58.9% of GDP; on par with the global average, which makes us comparable to countries like Ghana (59.9%), Guyana (57%), and Vietnam (56.7%).  But that’s only counting the approximately $7.5 trillion that isn't held by U.S. government entities (read:  the Fed) or borrowed from the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.  If you add back the intragovernmental debt to get the full $14.5 trillion, the Treasury now tells us our debt has actually passed 100% of our GDP.  We owe more than we produce.  Compare that to China (19.1%) or Russia (11.1%).

No wonder Vladimir Putin calls us a parasite.

All told, the Beast has over 1,300 agencies, with over 2 million civilian employees (not including contractors).  Compare that with, say, the big five oil companies, which have a combined workforce of about 350,000 worldwide.  In 1790, there were only 3 million people in the U.S.  Today, nearly that many are on the federal payroll outside of the military.  On August 30, 2010, USA Today reported that 4.4 million people are on federal welfare, and some 40 million people receive food stamps.  That’s upwards of 50 million people who in some fashion have a straw stuck directly into the bank accounts of the 53% of us who still pay any taxes.  And that’s before Obamacare begins in earnest in 2014.

The problem with this is the numbers are so staggeringly huge now that they’ve become meaningless.  It’s hard to care when you’re talking about figures with so many digits you can’t even use a calculator on them without going into scientific notation (something most of us, myself included, don’t even remember how to do anymore).  It’s Monopoly money, and it becomes very easy to say “what’s another billion dollars”?  And so the cycle continues.

When a star has consumed all of its energy, its core can no longer support its own mass and it collapses in on itself, sometimes forming a black hole.  We need an intervention before the Beast consumes us whole.  If we don’t get it in 2012, it may become too late.

1 comment:

  1. Smaller is better - what is government actually "good" at? I guess we get a decent return from defense spending (even if Iraq/Afghanistan strategy leaves much to be desired), but after that, I'm not buying much of what they have to sell.....