I've been thinking a bit about the debate over the budget in Wisconsin in particular and the more general debate about taxes and the size of government. I responded a bit to Paul Soglin's suggestion that we treat government like a business and "invest." I should not think his friends at AFSME would want to go there.
I do not consider myself a business person. I just turned a pretty sweet job at a great company into a consulting gig because my heart and mind laid elsewhere. But I did spend almost ten years as part of senior management, dealing with business issues at more general, "high perspective" level.
And I learned a lot. The business people that I worked with were whip smart. They know their stuff and have the bottom line to prove it.
One of the things I learned is that we do not assume that our costs must go up. In fact, we work very hard to reduce them. When business is down and we don't have the revenue that we used to have, we don't call our customers and tell them that they must dig deeper. We compare our costs to industry benchmarks and, if they are higher than our competitors, we try to address that.
The debate around taxes and government spending is often reduced to one side claiming that government ("the beast") is being starved while the other suggests that the beast is still feeding. Who's right?
Last night I saw some interesting numbers in an essay by William Voegeli in the Claremont Review of Books (sorry, it's only available on processed pulp). He points out that, in the period from 1956 to 1981, real (adjusted for inflation) per capita spending increased 94%.
Did Reagan reverse that trend? No. Did he stop it? No. From 1981 through 2006, real per capita federal spending increased 41%. He slowed it.
Is this more recent spending largely in the area of defense? It looks like it isn't. As a percentage of the budget and gross domestic product, military spending increased until 1987 and then decreased until 2001. Today, it is 20% of the federal budget and 4% of GDP. Both figures are lower than at any point in the Carter administration.
If you want to put this in the best light for conservatives, you could point out that federal spending as a percentage of GDP was 22.2% of GDP in 1081 and 20.3% in 2006. Spending at all levels of government was 31.6% in 1981 and 31.8% in 2006. So the best that the right can claim is that it has fought the Beast to a draw.
So let's keep things in perspective when we hear the words "slash," "starve" and "decimate" in connection with our budget debates.