Our View: Where are are . . .

Posted: January 4, 2013

After his party had extricated itself from its fiscal-cliff box — albeit at the expense of its one remaining tenet of old-time faith — Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., engaged in a bit of after-the-fact lamentation. And ended up uttering the new year’s first conspicuous understatement.

“We’re always wanting to spend and promise and spend and borrow but not cut,” Mr. Shelby said, accurately enough. “We’ve got to get real about this. We’re headed down the road that Europe’s already on.”

“Headed down,” Mr. Shelby, or, as columnist Mona Charen suggested, are we already there? The latter seems far more accurate, and Ms. Charen’s latest commentary has the numbers to prove it.

Where to begin? Well, let’s start with federal spending as a proportion of GDP. The post-war norm was about 20 percent, or less. Now, in this Age of Obama, it checks in at nearly 25 percent.

What’s more, to cite John J. DiIulio’s most recent piece for National Affairs, when all levels of governments — local and state as well as federal — are factored in, the United States is pretty much on a par with Europe in terms of spending and, in some instances (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) actually even exceeds it.

It’s easy, and sometimes politically convenient, to pin all this spending growth on Mr. Obama. But while it’s true that the current occupant of the White House has been our most wantonly profligate chief executive, adding a staggering $4.5 trillion to the debt in less than four years, it also must be said America’s spending problem has been decades in the making. Consider: In 1960, total government spending on all levels came to 27 percent of GDP. Fifty years later, in 2010, it was roughly 42 percent.

Let’s face it, for all Americans’ alleged preference for small government, we are a big-government nation. As Mr. DiIulio writes, “Add our annual debt per capita (about $49,000 in 2011) to total annual government spending per capita (about $20,000 in 2011), and we have a rough ‘big government index’ of nearly $70,000 for every man, woman, and child in this country.”

Simply stated, government is everywhere, and we’re addicted to it — though we, as a people, recoil from admitting as such. But the numbers, laid out by Ms. Charen, are clearly there for all to see — 60 million receiving Medicaid benefits, 54 million on Social Security (with thousands of Baby Boomers joining these ranks every day), 45 million availing themselves of food stamps, 40 percent of K-12 students getting free or reduced-price meals (often breakfast andlunch).

Kudos to Mr. Shelby, we suppose, for pointing out the obvious — though it seems his remarks were tendered more in exasperation than righteous indignation. But, who knows, maybe his words will resonate. After all, as Ms. Charen concluded in the last sentence of her column: “The road to recovery begins with admitting you have a problem.”