Archive for April 27th, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, I debunked a remarkably anti-empirical column by Dana Milbank of the Washington Post.

He claimed that America’s response to the coronavirus was hampered because government is too small, yet the nations he cited as successful role models actually have much smaller public sectors than the United States.

I congratulated him for accidentally making a strong case for libertarianism and providing evidence for my Seventh Theorem of Government.

Unfortunately, other journalists share Mr. Milbank’s ignorance with regards to easily accessible data on fiscal policy.

Writing for the Atlantic, George Packer asserts that the U.S. response to the coronavirus has been a miserable failure because government is too small.

Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state. …a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding. …tests for the virus were almost impossible to find… years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation.

Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review takes apart Packer’s column.

He points out that CDC funding has increased, while also noting that the bureaucracy has squandered the additional money it has received.

…the CDC’s funding has increased — not that it has made good use of the extra money. This is not a lean and mean virus-fighting machine, getting by on starvation-level resources. It maintains a Hollywood liaison to consult on films. In recent years, it has expanded beyond its core mission to promote motorcycle safety and sponsor programs dedicated to fostering “safe, stable, nurturing relationships” in schools. If you’re wondering why there was lots of political and social messaging larding up CDC documents on COVID-19, just realize that when Congress increases an agency’s funding, the result is likely to be more ideological make-work jobs rather than a more effective workforce. …as for public-sector health-care spending, ours is not notably low — it’s roughly equivalent to those of the developed nations of Western Europe.

And he also observes that nations with smaller governments have done a better job than countries with bigger governments.

…The East Asian states that have done best in fighting COVID-19 are not social-democratic but hyper-capitalist. Compared with them — and to America —Western Europe has done much worse at containing the spread of the coronavirus and the holding down the death toll.

Excellent points.

For my contribution to this debate, I’m going to investigate whether Mr. Packer is right about “steady defunding” of the federal government.

To see whether he is correct about “programs defunded,” I went to Table 1.3 of the Historical Tables of the Budget and created the following chart to see what happened to inflation-adjusted spending over the past 40 years.

Lo and behold, it turns out that Mr. Packer is completely wrong. There hasn’t been any defunding. Not even close.

Instead, the inflation-adjusted burden of government is almost three times greater today than it was the year Reagan was elected (and it will be more than three times greater once all the emergency spending is included).

The bottom line is that I can’t figure out whether to be more dismayed that journalists are innumerate or that major publications apparently don’t have fact checkers.

P.S. There were periods when spending grew faster than at other times. There were also times when the private sector grew faster than the government (fulfilling the Golden Rule). And we also can see the how government exploded because of TARP and Obama’s faux stimulus and then was briefly constrained during the Tea Party era (and is now climbing rapidly under Trump).

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