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The disproportion is the point
On the matter of misinterpreting our budgetary priorities through bad graphs
From time to time, someone points to a pie chart of discretionary spending by the Federal government and imagines they're making a brilliant argument with a pithy statement like "The United States government is an army with a country attached." It's not an original thought; many have restated it many times before (including when it was said about Prussia nearly 250 years ago).
■ But it's not only unoriginal; it is deeply misleading, and it is misleading on two levels. The first is the obvious omission of the two biggest accounts at the Federal level: Entitlement spending under Social Security and Medicare. We budget more for Medicare than for defense, and with a faster growth rate. Social Security is much larger still.
■ Even setting aside that perspective, there is another glaring error in placing a single-minded focus on Federal discretionary spending: States and local governments in the United States are supposed to do a great deal of the work of government for themselves. That is the Constitutional order of business: Washington, DC, does what it must, and the states are to do the rest.
■ Unanimity of opinion is impossible to achieve among 332 million people, and the Constitution was brilliantly structured so as not to need uniformity. In fact, we are better off without it. Denmark, for example, has about 5.8 million people. That places it between Colorado and Wisconsin in size. 5.8 million people is clearly large enough to have a distinctive culture, a unique political climate, and a self-sustaining economy. What we would expect in those terms from a country like Denmark we should equally expect from mid-sized states like Colorado and Wisconsin.
■ That isn't a flaw of the Constitutional system; it is the genius of it. Any one of the states of the Union is free to do for itself most of the things that we would expect many countries to do -- so long as the state maintains a republican form of government (Article IV, Section 4) and offers the equal protection of the law to all people (Amendment XIV).
■ Should a state decide to offer free post-secondary education to its citizens, or to experiment with single-payer health care, or to build a high-speed rail network, it is free to do so -- by itself or in cooperation with others. And it is especially free to do so because the Federal government is there to take care of big-picture, unanimity-requiring issues, like defense and international diplomacy.
■ To the extent those matters basically don't have to be addressed at the state level, the states are in fact more free than most countries to experiment and innovate -- and they should act on that freedom. Go ahead: Cater to corporations, subsidize TV production, or open a sovereign-wealth fund.
■ So, no, the United States isn't just an "army with a country attached". It's a rich union of diverse states with different interests but a common agreement to share a vast economy, a common set of fundamental rules, and an approach to the defense of all that has generally ensured domestic safety in a manner uncommon in the world. That's what it is supposed to do. But by concentrating one form of spending at one level of government and much of the rest of the spending on another, the resulting peculiarities of a pie chart really make no fundamental point at all. The disproportion in spending is, in fact, the point.