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Opening Arguments

Big

This seems to be an informative number, and more than a little scary:

President Obama Monday invoked Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to justify his expansive view of government, but Jefferson might be surprised to learn that the number of federal employees today is nearly equal to the entire population of the nation in 1776.

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, the current civilian federal workforce, excluding postal service employees, was 2.15 million in 2011. The Census Bureau estimates that in 1776, the entire population of the United States was just a bit higher, at about 2.5 million. The number suggests that every adult man and woman living at the time – at least – would have been needed to staff today’s federal government.

But I'm not sure why 1776 is a relevant comparison. The federal government as we know it today didn't exist until 1789. Before that, we were just a loose confederation with all the power in the states and very little for the central government -- if you could even call it that -- to do. Equating the number of the federal employees now to the population in 1776 is a cute gimmick that gets in a good dig at Obama, but it's meaningless if we're really trying to understand the growth of the federal bureaucracy.

It would be more revealing to use 1789 as a comparison year, which he includes just as a sort of throwaway line near the bottom of the piece:

In his first term as president, George Washington had only five Cabinet members and about 1,000 federal workers in his employ.

Elsewhere, I found that the population of the country was estimated at 3.9 million in the 1790 Census, so that would give us one federal employee for every 3,900 Americans. Today (using his number) and an estimated population of 315,000,000, we have one federal employee for every 147 Americans. That does make the federal government a little more, um, involved with us, doesn't it?

And, no, I'm not just ragging on Obama. He didn't invent Big Government, he merely embraced it with relish. Under him, the federal civilian workforce has grown by nearly 200,000 from the level of 1.86 million in 2008. He only accelerated the pace that became breakneck long before he got into office.

Comments

Harl Delos
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 2:10pm

Strange definition of "acceleration" you're using, Leo.

We have fewer non-military employees now than we had in 1980 and when you consider that Homeland Security is now screening passengers in airports, instead of the private sector, that's quite an accomplishment.

It's even more significant when you consider that when Reagan took over, there were 226 million Americans, and today, it's 330 million.

Leo Morris
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 3:04pm

Federal employment declined in the 1990s, but started to rise again under W. , and O. is pursuing more growth, so the historical trend is back. One decade of restraint does not negate a solid history of growth or diminish one's sense that government is too big.

Harl Delos
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 8:13pm

 Nice argument, Leo, but it doesn't match the facts.  Obama shrank federal emloyment for the last four years. 

Here are the figures from the BLS.GOV website for Employment, Hours, and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics survey (National).  Employment is in thousands. January 2013 isn't over yet, so I substituted December 2012. The third column is year-over-year growth, from my spreadsheet rather than from the government's. 

Shrinking the federal workforce by a third of one percent ain't any great shakes, but it's not rapidly accelerating growth, no matter how you slice it.

1971 12878   3.06%
1972 13266   3.01%
1973 13690   3.20%
1974 14090   2.92%
1975 14624   3.79%
1976 14969   2.36%
1977 15056   0.58%
1978 15611   3.69%
1979 15937   2.09%
1980 16201   1.66%
1981 16360   0.98%
1982 16041   -1.95%
1983 16023   -0.11%
1984 16010   -0.08%
1985 16336   2.04%
1990 18151   11.11%
1991 18474   1.78%
1992 18688   1.16%
1993 18901   1.14%
1994 19147   1.30%
1995 19397   1.31%
1996 19450   0.27%
1997 19593   0.74%
1998 19770   0.90%
1999 20084   1.59%
2000 20571   2.42%
2001 20835   1.28%
2002 21377   2.60%
2003 21626   1.16%
2004 21538   -0.41%
2005 21735   0.91%
2006 21847   0.52%
2007 22095   1.14%
2008 22376   1.27%
2009 22576   0.89%
2010 22479   -0.43%
2011 22249   -1.02%
2012 21991   -1.16%
2013 21925   -0.30%

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
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