By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
No one really knows how much the government in the United States really costs. Politicians and activists alike have a lot to say about taxation and spending, about how much things cost and, as currently the case in the debate over the Obama administration's effort to put more government in the healthcare system, about how much more expensive they are likely to get. But that is only part of the equation.
The truth is that no one really knows how much the level of government we have in the United States, in precise, absolute terms, costs the American taxpayers each day or even each year.
One effort to get to inside the ballpark when it comes to fixing government's cost is produced by the Center for Fiscal Responsibility and the pro-taxpayer Americans for Tax Reform Foundation, which each year calculate what they call "Cost of Government Day"—Cost of Government Day is the date of the calendar year on which the average American worker has earned enough in gross income to pay off his or her share of the spending and regulatory burden imposed by government at the federal, state, and local levels.
This year, in 2009, Cost of Government Day fell on August 12, 26 days later than in 2008, when it fell on July 16 and came later in the year than at anytime going back to 1977, the first year for which the date is calculated.
In simple terms, this means the average taxpayer has to work 224 days out of the year to earn enough in gross income just to meet the cost imposed by all levels of government.
The reason for the dramatic increase, says the groups' report, "is that all components of the cost of government—federal spending, state and local spending, and regulations—are now increasing faster than national income, which shrunk as a result of the financial crisis in 2008."
The data appear to bear out the claim, now that federal spending alone has reached a record 28.5 percent of U.S. Gross Domestic Product. But more than that, the report says, "The average American worker must labor 65 days in 2009 just to cover the costs of government regulations. This compares to 61.1 days in 2008, reflecting rapid growth in regulatory costs. This year, regulation is estimated to consume 17.7 percent of national income which, compared to 16.1 percent in 1999, is a drastic increase."
These are not precise measurements, but they do convey, in terms and images readily accessible to most Americans, a real sense of how much the government costs. Many politicians, including President Obama, one suspects, would rather beg the question of whether it's all worth it, which is why so many of them are canceling their town meetings over the summer recess or taking phone calls right in the middle of them.
The taxpayers who are coming to these meetings, on the other hand, seem to be giving voice to a shared sentiment that, whatever it costs, they're not getting what they pay for—which may be part of the reason so many of them are opposed to giving the government an even bigger role in the healthcare system.
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