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nickshepDEM Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-29-06 08:57 AM
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The Government and the Private Sector
Interesting Blog entry I found at an Economic blog I frequently read. All of the posters on this blog have PhD's in Economics or Finance.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

Ronald Reagans First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981

Every so often, I like to check things that everyone knows are true. Its amazing how often it turns out that something we all know is true doesnt seem to mesh with the data for some reason.

One thing we all know to be true, at least those of us who are from the good old US of A (I know there are some of them foreigner people that read this blog, and I suspect one or two of them may even be French!) is that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector. Presumably this means that the greater the governments share of the economy, the slower growth (say, growth in real GDP per capita) will be.

Well, this is self-evidently true, but lets plug in some numbers, just for grins. Everything we need is available from the BEA's NIPA Tables.

Table 1.1.6 gives us data on Real GDP and its components (including total federal plus state and local Government consumption expenditures and investment). From this we can determine governments share of the total economy. Going back to 1950, this figure hit a peak of about 34.33% in 1953, and bottomed out at 17.53% in 2000.

(I note that post-Gerald Ford, governments share of the economy rose as high as 22% three times. Each time was under Ronald Reagan, and the last time was in 1986. So much for Ronald Reagan being a small government kind of guy compared to, say, Jimmy Carter.)

Government shrunk as a percentage of the economy every single year under Clinton, reaching a minimum of 17.5% in 2000. Since then, its had ups and downs, and in 2005, was at about 17.7%. (Obviously, given the massive growth in the Federal budget under GW, thats due mostly to state and local government shrinking relative to the economy as a whole.)

NIPA Table 7.1 gives us real GDP per capita, from which we can compute annual percentage change in real GDP per capita.

The table below shows the correlation between real annual percentage growth rate in GDP per capita, and government as a percentage the economy in period t-X.


Now, this is simplistic a simplistic analysis, but ten to 25 years out, spending by the private sector is not more likely to lead to growth than spending by the government, and in fact, the opposite may well be true. (I note that using more sophisticated tools a few years back doing something similar, I got similar results.)

Possible reasons why this result might be observed:

1. It could all be an illusion. A different period of time might show different results. Long time readers will note I simply picked the time period I normally pick when the data is available. I start at 1950 to give the economy enough time to get over the effects of the Great Depression and WW2, which were special cases if there were any.

2. Government spending may be more geared toward the long term. Spending on education and infrastructure, for example, take a long time to pay off.

3. Government spending is geared toward institutions that are necessary for the long term functioning of the economy. Even the DMV, which is always exhibit A of inefficiency, is never privately run perhaps because doing so is difficult. Eliminate the DMV and society can continue relatively unchanged for a year, or two but eventually things break down.

4. Market failures mean the profit motive creates private sector incentives that are inefficient and violate the Invisible Hand outcome creating excess pollution and otherwise imposing private costs on third parties, generating paperwork rather than output (e.g., think the health insurance industry), etc. Arguably, a significant part of the legal and accounting industries are geared toward increasing deception and obfuscation, and often these are among the most lucrative private sector careers open to a lot of people.

5. In the private sector, there is often more gain to exploiting short-term inefficiencies that might well disappear by themselves anyway than there is to producing anything real, which is a tremendous waste of resources. (Think number of stockbrokers.)

6. The private sector is made up of people. People are lazy in the private sector just as they are lazy in the public sector.

Two additional commentaries about the these results

1. These results are for the US, for the range of government to private sector observed in the data. Anyone who tries to extrapolate from this that having the US government run the entire economy will be more efficient is a fool. At what ratio of government to private sector do we start seeing more government sector inefficiencies and fewer private sector inefficiencies? Well, who knows? That would require a lot more work, and this is an unpaid hobby.

2. It may be that with different accounting rules, private sector spendings advantage over government spending (note the extremely low correlations) might disappear altogether. Government spending appears in ledgers at cost whereas private sector spending includes improvements made. This accounting artifact makes private sector spending look more efficient than it is in the short term.

Since today I seem to be enumerating, let me try enumerating one more thing why do we believe in this private sector is efficient myth? I can think of a few reasons offhand:

1. The Private Sector accounts for over 80% of the economy. Most people work in the private sector. We have a vested interest in believing were better than the alternative.

2. The media, which tells us how everything works, is in the hands of the private sector. They have a vested interested in believing the private sector is better than the alternative.

3. Medias advertisers are in the private sector. They have a vested interested in all of us believing the private sector is better than the alternative.

4. One of the purposes of government is to set rules and correct market failures. But a very, very big part of the private sector is geared specifically toward finding ways around those rules and exploiting market failures. Criticizing government is a way to justify such anti-social behavior, or at least focus attention elsewhere.

Your thoughts?
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Lasher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-29-06 09:36 AM
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1. This helps fortify my belief that Democrats are by far our best fiscal stewards.
I think it was Clinton who said if you want to live like a Republican, vote like a Democrat.

Federal spending (aka "big government"): It has gone up an average of about $50 billion a year under presidents of both parties. But that breaks down as $35 billion a year under Democratic presidents and $60 billion under Republicans. If you assume that it takes a year for a president's policies to take effect, Democrats have raised spending by $40 billion a year and Republicans by $55 billion.

Leaning over backward even farther, let's start our measurement in 1981, the date when many Republicans believe that life as we know it began. The result: Democrats still have a better record at smaller government. Republican presidents added more government spending for each year they served, whether you credit them with the actual years they served or with the year that followed.

As you point out, however, "big government" is not inherently evil. Using the DMV as an example, we could sell all our highways to the private sector and everyone could pay tolls every time they drive anywhere. This would generate private revenues, part of which would pay for highway infrastructure improvements. A great deal of government spending could thereby be reduced, but most would agree that this would be a bad idea.

Perhaps a better example of the private sector's ineffenciencies is healthcare.

Jan. 14, 2004

A study by researchers at Harvard Medical School and Public Citizen to be published in Fridays International Journal of Health Services finds that health care bureaucracy last year cost the United States $399.4 billion. The study estimates that national health insurance (NHI) could save at least $286 billion annually on paperwork, enough to cover all of the uninsured and to provide full prescription drug coverage for everyone in the United States.

The study was based on the most comprehensive analysis to date of health administration spending, including data on the administrative costs of health insurers, employers health benefit programs, hospitals, nursing homes, home care agencies, physicians and other practitioners in the United States and Canada. The authors found that bureaucracy accounts for at least 31 percent of total U.S. health spending compared to 16.7 percent in Canada. They also found that administration has grown far faster in the United States than in Canada.

The potential administrative savings of $286 billion annually under national health insurance could:

  • Offset the cost of covering the uninsured (estimated at $80 billion)

  • Cover all out-of-pocket prescription drugs costs for seniors as well as those under 65 (estimated at $53 billion in 2003)

  • Fund retraining and job placement programs for insurance workers and others who would lose their jobs under NHI (estimated at $20 billion)

  • Make substantial improvements in coverage and quality of care for U.S. consumers who already have insurance

  • It should be noted that the above analysis was conducted prior to enactment of Medicare Part D.

    One more motiviation that comes to mind for promoting diversion of services to the private sector is that this creates more wealthy corporate executives, who usually can be expected to support Republicans.

    Thank you for this thoughtful OP.
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    fuzzyball Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Dec-31-06 02:17 AM
    Response to Reply #1
    5. Certain things such as roads, defense etc can not be done by
    the private sector alone because it would be impractical.

    You may end up with different type of roads in different
    locales and that would lead to chaos.

    However my observation is that when DOT sets standards for
    road construction but hands out contracts to private sector
    for the actual building and maintenance, it works much better.

    Here in Clark county, Wash State that formula is followed pretty
    much and the roads are much better. When I lived in Chicago, it
    was the city employees repairing the roads and it was awful.
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    Parisle Donating Member (849 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Dec-29-06 02:21 PM
    Response to Original message
    2. A great analysis,....
    --- You might add to your list that private sector business usually finds a way to hide its activities, whereas government is supposed to be more open in how it handles the people's money. And the private sector always has its bottom-line reasons to cheat. But the so-called "revolving door" has virtually made present-day government a branch of business, itself.
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    nickshepDEM Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Dec-31-06 12:42 AM
    Response to Original message
    3. kick
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    fuzzyball Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Dec-31-06 02:05 AM
    Response to Original message
    4. Just look at the REAL WORLD experience of China.....
    Edited on Sun Dec-31-06 02:10 AM by fuzzyball
    25 years or so ago Chinese economy was under 100% control
    of the government. Then they saw what was happening in
    Hong Kong and taiwan. The same race, the same people.
    And China started experimenting with allowing privately
    owned businesses. The results are astounding. Chinese
    economy has grown to 3rd biggest in the world! It will
    soon overtake Japan for 2nd place and in 15 years it will
    overtake United States!!

    Ofcourse the Chinese are doing a lousy job of protecting
    environment. But now that they are getting rich, I am sure
    the people will clamour for better environment and China
    will be able to actually afford improve the environment.

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