Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

GOP v. GDP: The issue with government spending

(Wally Gobertz/Flickr)
(Wally Gobertz/Flickr)

Recently, the 114th United States Congress convened in Washington D.C, and for the first time since Jan. 2007, the Republican Party now controls both the House of Representatives and the Senate. That’s good news for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is the future of federal fiscal policy.

Here is the full breakdown: our national debt has surpassed U.S. GDP (gross domestic product) and is now over $18 trillion in total. The annual budget deficit (the amount we add to the debt in one year), as a percentage of GDP, has been shrinking recently, going from 4.1 percent in 2013 to 2.9 percent in 2014 according to the Congressional Budget Office. However, the CBO projects that after bottoming out in 2015, our deficit will slowly increase back to 3.8 percent of GDP by 2022 (along with the overall debt-to-GDP ratio increasing again from 2018 on). In other words, the good times of shrinking deficits aren’t necessarily going to last long.

So what is to blame for causing our poor fiscal situation up to this point, and going forward? You’ve probably heard many explanations from both political parties. Republicans have made it clear that the biggest and most consequential issue is the federal government’s growing and entangled system of transfer payments.

According to the statistical whiz Nate Silver, back when he was at the New York Times he wrote an article titled “What is Driving Growth in Government Spending?” in which he made clear: “it has a relatively straightforward answer: first and foremost, spending on health care through Medicare and Medicaid, and other major social insurance and entitlement programs.”

Referring to the charts and numbers that Silver provided in his post, what he calls “entitlement spending” went from being virtually nonexistent on a federal level in 1930, to 5 percent of GDP in 1970, to 10 percent in the 1990s, to almost hitting 15 percent in 2010. And this is only entitlement spending on the federal level; if you add in state and local transfer payments, the numbers go much higher.

Over the long term, growth in programs like Medicare and Social Security will continue to absorb larger percentages of GDP, as reported by the CBO. Medicare by itself will go from 5 percent to 8 percent in the coming decades. Social Security will grow further as well. Already, transfer payments make up a majority of the federal budget. They’re becoming so bloated that they are starting to push other services out of the room.

‘But isn’t our poor fiscal situation the result of military spending and tax cuts?’


As the data Silver provided shows, military spending as a percentage of GDP has mostly been on the decline since the 1950s. In the early 1950s, it was over 10 percent. By the 1990s, it was slightly less than 5 percent of GDP. The Treasury Department estimated in Sept. 2014 that the defense budget for the full fiscal year would end up being $583.84 billion. That comes out to roughly 3.48 percent of our $16.77 trillion GDP (est. 2013 World Bank).

In addition, as the Tax Policy Center states in their record of previous tax receipts, since WWII (post 1945) the lowest that federal tax receipts have ever gone is 14.1 percent of GDP in 1950. The highest is 19.9 percent in 2000. From 1946 to the present, tax revenue has always been in that range, mostly going up and down with cyclical economic factors (higher with good economic times, lower with bad ones), not so much with changes in the tax rates themselves.

In fact, when the tax rate was 39.6 percent for top income earners in 2000, the federal government took in more revenue than during any year in the 1950s, when the top tax rate on incomes was 91 percent and higher than today on lower brackets as well. Turns out, tax rates haven’t got much to do with federal revenue if you ignore loopholes, deductions, tax shelters, and economic growth. Americans still paid more in taxes overall with supposedly “lower tax rates.”

Total federal tax receipts are estimated to be 19 percent in 2018, higher than the post-war average. The problem isn’t taxes. The problem isn’t the military either, which is being hammered by the sequester. The problem is the welfare state. It has gotten way too big for our nation to sustain for the long term. That is why we should all be thankful that the GOP has more power in Washington than before.

Nicholas Pappas is a Collegian contributor and can be reached at [email protected].

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