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America: “Dollar for dollar, most effective and efficient government on the planet”

A must-read post over at FiveThirtyEight today, where Tom Schaller explodes a series of lightweight talking-point-bloviations by Jonah Goldberg.

There’s a lot of information contained therein, and the whole thing is worth a read, but here’s the takeaway ‘graph:

Dollar for dollar, America offers the most effective and efficient government on the planet, doing so for about 20 cents on the dollar nationally, 28 cents if you include state and local taxes. If you ask a conservative to name a country that provides as many quality services for less, or more and better services for the same price, they can’t name one. If they do, encourage them to start packing their bags. Sure, they could save a lot of money living in Mexico–if they don’t count all the bribes they’ll have to pay to educate their kids and protect themselves from possible violence. Bottom line is we’re simply not as big as conservatives would have us believe. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek efficiencies, govern more effectively within budget constraints, or try to eliminate fraud and abuse. But American government is pretty clean and fairly lean.

The critical piece, and what makes this post so good: a lot of the claims made in policy debates can be verified or debunked empirically. This is especially true of topics such as government efficiency, even distribution of wealth, etc. When people make claims like “government is too big and efficient,” we can study that claim, find out if it’s true, and respond accordingly.

Schaller’s post uses a lot of data. It shows the cold, hard facts, and the facts are that our government is pretty cost-effective (and does far less to share wealth equitably than any other industrialized nation).

A conservative analyst once described liberals sneeringly as the “reality-based community,” contrasting the left with folks (like Jonah Goldberg) who start with a belief system and try to construct a fact pattern that fits their convenient opinions. It’s easier to rally people with sloganeering and preconceived notions, but it makes better policy to use and analyze the best available information.

Claims should have a basis in reality. We’re the reality-based community. That’s worth taking pride in, and remembering.

6 Comments

  1. pino

    April 7, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    America: “Dollar for dollar, most effective and efficient government on the planet”

    I don’t understand the point of your post. We may very well be the most efficient nation in the world. But that ranking has been hard won. We have worked very very hard to remain as small as we can. We try to stop the growth of government when ever we see it.

    By trying to keep taxes low, we maintain a smaller government.

    By trying to keep government handouts to a minimum, we try to remain small.

    It is only by actions being pursued by the current administration that we become more bloated, less efficient.

    If your point was to show that by electing officials UNLIKE Obama and the current majorities we grow, you did very well.

  2. Jeff Shaw

    April 7, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    I don’t understand the point of your post.

    That’s correct.

    The point of the post (and data) isn’t “we have small government in America,” the point is, “when America spends money through the government, we do so in a very cost-effective fashion that delivers an outstanding return on our investment.

    Our government services benefit people *enormously,” and give an excellent bang-for-the-buck value. Government provides quality services at a low price. That’s the point.

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  4. pino

    April 7, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Our government services benefit people *enormously,” and give an excellent bang-for-the-buck value. Government provides quality services at a low price. That’s the point.

    The whole reason we are so efficient is that we are not spending money on the same things other countries spend money on.

    I may agree that we spend more efficiently on things here in America. But that’s because we’re spending on things more rightly meant to be government responsibilities. For example, if you were to remove such government programs from Western Europe as their health care, their labor laws and their retirement packages, I’m sure they would begin to look much more like America.

    We are not better at managing large government. We’re better at making sure we don’t manage large government.

    Until now.

  5. Chase

    April 8, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    I like Tom’s point that some of the most cost effective/efficient institutions that exist in the U.S. are publicly-owned. But I’m uncomfortable with the claim that the U.S. government does better than anyone else (though if the data really supports that, I’m willing to try and become more comfortable). Its true that we spend less money overall than many other industrialized democracies, and maybe what we get is still pretty good considering how relatively low government expenditures remain. But I also think we should remember that the public sector is much smaller than it should be (considering the size and needs of our nation). Maybe its the Euro-phile in me, but I think we could find lots of examples of more efficient, effective government programs throughout Western Europe. In France, for instance, they have a centralized educational system that spends a lot less money on bureaucracy (there’s only one, instead of half a dozen), while producing better education outcomes. In these countries government health care spending it a lot less expensive because of universal coverage and better regulations. And they don’t have the same bloated national defense budget (last year, America’s topped half a trillion, not including Afghanistan, Iraq, or VA benefits). Considering how much more governments in Europe, Australiasia, and parts of South America provide in the health care, education, public works, arts and social service sectors, my non-expertise view is that their citizens also get a pretty good (if not better) deal for their money. That’s the main reason most of these programs in Europe and elsewhere are so overwhelmingly popular (and remain in place even when right-of-center leaders are elected in Germany, France, Canada, et al)

  6. E

    July 9, 2010 at 8:22 pm

    “But that’s because we’re spending on things more rightly meant to be government responsibilities.”

    What are government responsibilities, really? Defense, ensuring commerce. We’ve established that the government is responsible for our health – after all, who ensures our water is safe to drink? We expect parents to not deny life saving treatments. And wouldn’t a fully functioning society be more productive in the big picture?

    From a public health standpoint, it makes sense to me to have at least a minimal amount of care, yet to be defined, allowed everyone. If someone is ill and still go to work that they may affect their quality of work, safety of their co workers, or even the contamination of disease, especially in the food system. There are a lot of unisured workers handling our food, and who know what the new superbug is going to be.