Thursday, March 26, 2009

WAGER: Does Obama Make Government Bigger?


Gov. Bobby Jindal, in turning down “stimulus” spending for Louisiana, noted with some fear the fact that the strings attached to stimulus money put big-spending programs in place permanently in the states that accept the money, mandating that the states pay for it after the initial influx of federal cash. Obama may be using the excuse of the financial crisis to stealthily rewrite American law in an even more big-government fashion, though it’s very encouraging to see the mounting wariness about this even in the mainstream press.

I asked Jacob Levy — who thinks Obama is in some sense more libertarian than Bush — whether he was still interested in doing the change-in-size-of-gov’t bet about Obama he once proposed — that is, that Obama would, in Jacob’s opinion, increase the size of government less than Bush, low standard though that is for any president. I initially declined the bet simply because who the hell knows what circumstances and events may occupy the President — not to mention Congress, which could always switch parties — in the years ahead or how amenable the voters will be to expansionism.

But it seems pretty unlikely now that Obama has any intention of pleasantly surprising us by shutting down Cabinet departments and that sort of thing, so I’ve taken the bet — in three parts, as suggested by Jacob: change in government spending in Bush’s first term vs. Obama’s first term, (1) at the federal level as a percentage of GDP, (2) at all levels as a percentage of GDP, and (3) in constant dollars. I’ll avoid discussing the precise terms so it doesn’t sound like there’s, y’know, gambling going on here.

I’ll readily admit that neither of us knows what the future holds, that it’d be nice for America if I lose the bet (though even Eastern Europeans and Chinese are now warning us we’re spending too much), and must caution in any case that it would be empiricism of the most myopic kind to think modern liberalism were vindicated as a philosophy or conservatism refuted if this one test goes in Obama’s favor — but Jacob thought this a valuable test, and I think I’ll win, so why not? Keeps life interesting, while we endure.


Whence some people’s strange confidence, though, in this terrible, capitalism-bashing demagogue, Barack Obama, who seems to inspire the same sort of statist reverence as did the dictatorial FDR?

On a non-economic front: despite the switch in terminology on “enemy combatant,” you’ll notice that, as some predicted, Obama’s made no actual legally-relevant changes in the Bush security procedures (the administration quite emphatically declined to do so despite judges repeatedly asking whether any tweaks in the law would be forthcoming). So does that make Democrats “the party of torture” now, to use the phrase Jacob once applied to the Republicans and even gave as one reason to avoid voting for (torture opponent and torture victim) McCain?

Or are the Democrats to be thought of as our friends throughout for reasons that I, in my stubborn, faith-like blindness, fail to perceive? Are they making us “freer” in some complex, metaphysical, perhaps Continental-philosohy way that I’m too bourgeois, literal-minded, and materialistic to grasp? Is being taxed and regulated by Democrats just holier than being taxed and regulated by Republicans, perhaps because Democrats talk pretty? Is that it, the talking pretty part? And with Obama, we get one-party rule to boot, something regarded as a bad thing by many limited-government proponents only the day before yesterday, it seemed.

All I know is that I see a lot of Republicans and libertarians at those mounting “American Tea Party” protests around the country, opposing the government’s “stimulus” spending — and while these people may not succeed in winning our freedom, to push against them or deride them as populists while they are fighting the good fight would not be honorable. If this nation’s epitaph is written in the near future, I hope it will not say that any libertarians sided with our destroyer.


Jacob T. Levy said...

“(3) in constant dollars”

no, per e-mail: as a percentage increase in the federal budget, in constant dollars. If Bush increased the budget by 10% controlling for inflation, and Obama increases it by 9% controlling for inflation from that baseline, Obama will increase government more in dollars but less as a %. (The purpose of this measure is to get GDP out of the picture.)

Todd Seavey said...

Right. Sorry. Structured my sentence carelessly, not the bet itself. Good thing I’m not trying to manage the whole economy — and more on that dangerous dream tomorrow (3/28).

Tim said...

Does this take into account on- and off- budget

listing manipulations? (Sorry :))

Todd Seavey said...

I think we’ll have to worry about such technicalities if and when the outcome proves ambiguous, which of course would not be a big surprise.

Vance Christensen said...

Definitely. The Government hates capitalism and free markets–they always want statist control, especially of commerce.