Fiscal Cliff, Curmudgeonly Calculations, and the Reagan Bet: Part III

Once I had everything lined out I was shocked at what I saw. It seems like you can’t turn over a rock without the Government forming a rock relocation committee. I assumed the workforce has been growing like a waistline at Thanksgiving.

I was wrong!

Total Government Employment Since 1962-02-notrends

In the last 49 years (roughly) the government averaged about 5,000,000 employees with a big spike in the late 1960’s (Vietnam?). There has been fluctuation in between but compared to 1962 and the 2010 Fed is just under a million employees smaller. How is it that us “small government” fans aren’t aware of this? You’d think we’d be pleased with the overall trend. (Yes, yes… Some of you are attempting to hammer the word “contractor” into the nearest keyboard as fast as possible. That’s a topic for another time.)

I shall repeat this because it impressed me; the number of employees in Federal government in 2010 is smaller than in 1962. Who knew?

Another interesting thought, the US population increased in that time. Thus the relative size of the Fed diminished from 29 to 16 Feds per million Americans. Huzzah!

Now was the time to see if I would eat crow or not. This all started when I claimed that Reagan increased the size of government. Specifically he hired more Federal employees. I’d skated on thin ice. To some folks, bitching about Reagan increasing the size of government is like complaining that the Pope’s keg parties are too wild. Was I wrong?
Total Government Employment Since 1962-02-trends

(Warning: Math/) Any spreadsheet can fit a linear regression. I made one for each president. My crude regressions have a slope and an intercept. Forget the intercept and look at the slope. The slope is the average change per year exhibited by that president. If the slope is positive, then the president increased the number of people working for the government. If it’s negative he decreased it. The size of the number is how aggressively this happened. A small slope means virtually no change. A big number means a big change.(/Math)

Ronald Reagan added just under 54,000 Feds a year. Overall he accumulated about 307,000 additional employees total in 8 years as head poombah. Based on America’s population in 1985, Reagan added a total of about 0.129% or more than 1/1000 of the citizenry to the already existing Federal force.

Delightfully, the numbers had backed up my statements! Almost a third of a million additions in eight years means the hero of small government somehow managed to hire another person every 10 minutes, day and night, weekends included, the entire time he was in power. I laughed hard enough to annoy my dog.

What about my boast that the two parties are pretty similar? I’d stated my theory that Republicans (which talk a big game about small government) had not behaved much better than the Democrats (which have never met anything that isn’t, in their eyes, under the purview of the Federal government). Was I correct?

On my chart there has been a Republican in charge 28 years and a Democrat for 21 years. Nice bi-partisan sample. All I needed was a weighted average of presidential “slopes” by party. Republicans cut 71,000 Fed jobs a year on average. Democrats add just under 50,000 employees a year. Ironically, Democrats rack up new hires roughly as quickly as Reagan did.

So I learned something new. With the exception of Reagan, the “small government party” does indeed reduce employees more than their counterpart. Fair ’nuff.

What else is there to learn? It looked like the Democrat’s record of adding Feds is almost entirely due to a spike that happened on Johnson’s watch. Every other Democrat (except Obama) shed jobs. What if I took out the spike?

As an experiment I zeroed out the temporary spike that is probably Vietnam. It started more or less in 1965 and it was more or less erased by 1972 (every job added on the way up was cut on the way down). Retaining the spike meant that Dems got the blame for the build up and Repubs got the credit for the reduction. (“Credit” and “blame” being dependent on your point of view.)

Removing the seven year spike didn’t change much. Johnson and Reagan remain the big expanders. Clinton and Nixon remain the big reducers. In keeping with the overall trend, Republicans reduce -42,000 Feds a year while Democrats shave only about -10,000. No matter how you slice it, (ditching Johnson’s buildup and keeping Reagan’s expansion) Republicans still generally cut the number of Feds 400% faster than Democrats.

You can split hairs further. For example I didn’t pro-rate changes between presidents. My chart implies that the day after Bush Jr. left office, a quarter million more Feds simply materialized out of thin air and neither Bush nor Obama had the slightest influence on that. Of course it could be examined, but doing so is a political hassle I don’t need. Nor does it matter. I wasn’t interested in what a specific pinhead politician did. My question was what the herd of pinheads have done en masse. Well, that and having fun taunting a friend over Reagan.

I sense commentary arguing either for or against a particular president or party. One could write books about how such and such unfortunate growth in the size of Government was totally necessary at the time because the Lemur harvest in Indonesia affected Boris Yeltzin’s left nut… Not interested. I’ve seen everything under the sun justified by very earnest people and it gets weird fast. All I care is what presidents of both parties did; what actually happened on their watch. In fact I pretty much don’t care what any of them said or intended. Presidents shouldn’t get a pass for having good intentions.

P.S. I used the following rough numbers for USA population in 1962 = 186,000,000, in 2010 = 281,000,000, and in 1985 = 238,000,000.)

About Adaptive Curmudgeon

I will neither confirm nor deny that I actually exist.
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13 Responses to Fiscal Cliff, Curmudgeonly Calculations, and the Reagan Bet: Part III

  1. Sailorcurt says:

    I’d be willing to bet that your number of federal employees includes the military.

    During the 60’s (vietnam) the draft was in full swing. After Vietnam we went to an all volunteer military and the numbers declined dramatically.

    Reagan did increase non military federal employees, but the vast majority of his increases were in military buildup including his highly touted goal to make us a 600 ship navy. He didn’t cause the fall of the Soviet Union by wishing real hard.

    Ford (IIRC) did cut the federal government including the military, but Clinton’s reductions were ALL a result of military cuts. This was during the meat of my career I vividly remember the time when the only way to get promoted was to wait for enough people senior to you to retire or die.

    In fact, under Clinton’s watch, non military government employees increased under his watch. All of his reductions in government employment were realized by gutting the military.

    Bush got us into 2 wars, modernized and upgraded our military capability and increased troop numbers without significantly increasing the size of the federal government. Whether you agree with his handling of 9/11 and its aftermath or not, that’s a pretty impressive feat if you ask me.

    Obama has again cut military personnel, reduced the number of ships and shrunk the military while at the same time growing the government instantly and significantly.

    In short, I think your premise is not inaccurate, Republicans historically are almost as eager (in some cases moreso) as democrats to add layers of federal bureaucracy and unconstitutional federal departments, but including military employee numbers in the analysis skews things to look worse than they really are.

    • My numbers do indeed include military personnel. I didn’t want to cut slack for any leader or party. In my eyes, huge spending for military (justified or not) is still huge spending. The thing I’m missing (because I’m lazy) is accounting for how much of the last few wars have been fought by mercenaries (or the more PC term… contractors). Or for that matter how many civilian contractors are “employed” in lieu of a regular Fed employee. After all, that still costs money even if you’ve shuffled the employee count onto a seperate organization.

  2. Doran says:

    Now for two more charts, one with the military stripped out and the other with just the military. Under Carter, Bush Sr., and Clinton the the military shrunk and under Reagan and Bush Jr., the military expanded. Can’t say for Obama.

    SFC (Ret)
    KSCA (Ret)
    COV (Ret)

    • Nope. Military employees, even if they’re very important, are not free and therefore shouldn’t be shunted off the chart. That’s the slippery slope to saying “yes we spend all that money but it was for a totally cool cause”.

    • Chuck says:

      Very interesting. I would also like to compare these three graphs. I suspect that you might find a lot more parity between the parties if the military changes can be “normed” out. In particular, the end of the Cold War and the post-Vietnam period were kind of a significant events for military strength.

      As you mention below, the whole contractor issue is sort of the x-factor in all of this. The government has gotten increasingly in the habit of outsourcing a lot of functions, using dollars to offset ‘reductions’ in government employment. This applies to a lot of non-military functions, more than most people realize.

  3. Great post.

    As you stated, the large buildup/drawdown 64-74 was majority military. A goodly proportion of the numbers involved in the Reagan buildup/Clinton drawdown was also military. The big difference being that the military mission drew down significantly in 73/74, while it actually increased significantly during the 91-01 timeframe (and obviously increased even more from 01-11).

    Since it’s your butt doing all the work, and not mine, I’d love to see the incorporation of federal contractors and federalization of state agencies (Nat’l guard), which I’m pretty sure would show some different slopes in the POTUS 42-43 eras.

    • If I get motivated (which is doubtful) and I find a pile of contractor numbers, I might repeat the exercise. Unfortunately, it appears that the number of contractors is a lot easier to obscure than the number of employess. Probably because contracts are measured in dollars and not people. (i.e. Similar sized contracts could be six employees building a zillion dollar bridge or a zillion employees sweeping sixty floors.)

  4. I wonder if using the National Gaurd is counted towards Federal counts in military as they are paid by the states. I could be completely wrong on that fact.
    The last two (read current) wars have been mostly staffed by states national guard units, typically on multiple deployments. But you knew this already.
    And of course, there is that contractor thing that doesn’t show as employee, but does show in budgets (what budget).

    • Got no idea who pays for National Guard units. I assumed they got Federal pay when they were deployed but then again who knows?

      Contractors might show on budgets but only as money. Not as how many people are employed at it.

      Analyzing budgets is a rabbit hole. The connection between budget and reality seems a bit tenuous at best. If I did the same kind of analysis with money instead of people (to eliminate the contracting effect) I’d be number crunching forever. It sounds like a huge hassle.

  5. Shango says:

    Two thoughts;
    1.) The devil IS in the details. Without the contractor numbers, this is an incomplete pricture. And contracting was almost unknown 40 years ago, but rampent today. And not just in the military.
    2.) Big government is more than just people. One government bureaucrat can create regulations that cost millions of dollars and man hours to implement. How many accountants does it take for a corporation to deal with today’s tax code vs 40 years ago? How much does it cost the oil industry to satisfy the EPA’s regulations today vs 40 years ago? How much has the cost of an automobile increased due to federal requirements? Obamacare has already spawned 10s of thousands of pages of new regulations and it has just started…

    • I agree that contracting is a big deal. I’m not sure if it is a negative or positive development but it could account for my measure of employees going down while intrusiveness appears to be going up.

      You’re also right that people is just one metric. Still, there are times when you must focus on large scale single measures lest you get bogged down in the details. My blowhard statements deserved a fact check and this was the best I could think of.

      In fact both parties use complexity to cover up their shenanigans. For example, the farm bill has countless little things that would never pass muster in the light of day sneak through just fine when run through a 2,000 page meat grinder.

  6. Fred2 says:

    Also to be suspected. 40 years ago the numbers included lots of bureaucrats who did nothing harmful (i.e. lots of clerks pushing paper) now all that was outsourced to computers, so everyone else left is hell-bent on DOING something like enforcing some damn regulation that is actually harmful.

  7. PJ says:

    Several years back the honcho of Liberty Magazine did an exhaustive study going back to Truman IIRC. He was looking at federal spending, and also controlled for who was in power in Congress. I think he used annual data points. Anyway he found that spending was high when the president and congress were controlled by the same party, and low when they were controlled by opposite parties. Not sure about when different parties controlled the two houses of Congress; probably an intermediate result. Not much difference between D’s and R’s as far as spending was concerned. But this is all from memory which is not very reliable.

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