Thursday, September 15, 2011

Big or Bad Government?

This essay may be reproduced.
Reprinted in St. Petersbug Times, Sept. 23, 2022, Page 15A

Big or Bad Government?
Edward Renner, PhD

The grid-lock in Washington over the role of government confuses two separate issues: the size and the function of government.
They are not same. 

The important distinction between them is the practical ways they affect our lives, today. It is not their rhetorical role as political ideologies.

We live in an increasingly complex globalized world. In the last 40 years the population of the US has increased by 50 million people. In that short time span there has been more change in communication and commerce than in the previous 400 years. 

We need government standards to assure airline safety, food purity and drug effectiveness. We need federal oversight to prevent financial institutions from taking speculative risks with our money. 
One measure of the total size and scope of our modern global reality is our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

By this measure our government is no larger now than when we were born. Government expense as a percentage of GDP has remained relatively constant for the past 60 years.

Contrary to what is often claimed, the huge annual budget deficit and accumulated federal debt is not evidence of "big" government. These are unpaid bills due to reduced levels of revenue and borrowed money to pay interest on borrowed money.

Throughout our entire history, with two exceptions, revenue has always been adjusted to keep pace with expenses. In 1981 and again in 2001 our government reduced taxes and essential government oversight of predatory corporate and Wall Street practices.  The economic toll of reducing the role of government started with Enron and culminated in the financial bailout and stimulus package required by the financial crisis of 2008.

The spike in spending after 2000 is compounded by the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses and the policy of paying for the war with borrowed money.

These outcomes are the result of "bad" government, not "big" government. They are mistakes of judgment that can and should be reversed. 

We are not going to fix "bad" government by reducing Federal spending relative to GDP. We need and deserve our government to grow in capacity with the increased size and complexity of living in a globalized world. 

We can fix "bad" government by taking the necessary steps to ensure that our government protects the general health, safety and well-being of its citizens. I want my government to contain predatory corporate and Wall Street practices. I want my government to speak the truth about the expanding global issues we face, and to engage in civil civic discussions to find practical solutions, not to grandstand political ideologies. 

Good government is our civic responsibility. We can start to reclaim good government by not confusing “bad” as being synonymous with “big.”

Size is not the problem. It is the quality.
Professor Renner teaches in the Honors Program at the University of South Florida. This essay is based on his podcast series “Forums for a Future” at

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