31 January 2013

Charts: What if Obama spent like Reagan?

Ezra Klein
In 10 of the past 12 quarters, total government spending and investment has fallen, dragging down the Obama economy. That's in large part because state and local cutbacks have been so severe, but it's also because federal spending and investment has, on the whole, been falling since 2010.
This isn't an unusual analysis. You can see the numbers for yourself if you head to the Bureau of Economic Analysis's GDP data and scroll through column 21 of table 1.1.2. It's simply a fact that real government spending fell in three of President Obama's first four years.
That made me curious: How does government spending and investment during Obama's first term compare to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush's first terms? The answer is poorly. Whereas total government spending dropped in 10 out of the 16 quarters that comprised Obama's first term, it rose in 13 out of Reagan's first 16 quarters, and 13 out of Bush's first 16 quarters.
government spending investment first terms

Or, to put it differently, over Obama's first term, falling government spending and investment snipped, on average, .11 percentage points of GDP off of (annualized) quarterly growth. During Reagan's first term, it added .68 percentage points, and during Bush's first term, it added .52 percentage points.
average government spending

The point isn't that Reagan and Bush were big spenders while Obama favors austerity. If it were up to Obama, the federal government would have spent much more since 2010. Moreover, these numbers are, in large part, functions of the economies the three men inherited. Each saw a recession in their first term, but Obama's was by far the worst, and so it led to much more severe cutbacks in state and local spending.
Rather, these graphs simply establish a basic fact about Obama's term: While deficits have indeed been high, government spending and investment has been falling since 2010. This is, in recent presidential administrations, a simply unprecedented response to a recession. Just for fun, I took Obama's GDP growth, netted out the effect of government spending and investment, and then added the total government spending and investment numbers — which include state and local government — from Reagan's first term. The result is a significantly better economy, with growth since 2010 averaging 3.2 percent rather than 2.4 percent.
obama reagan spending

Basic economic theory would hold that you want a larger contribution from government spending during a big recession in which private demand is weak than you do during a mild recession or a healthy economy. But that's been the case in Obama's economy, and all signs are that the pace of government spending cuts will accelerate sharply over the next year.

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