The Corner

Politics & Policy

English-Major Math: Kanye Edition

Rapper Kanye West gestures to the crowd as he holds his first rally in support of his presidential bid in North Charleston, S.C., July 19, 2020. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

How big is the federal government?

Consider this: If we could figure out a way to run the federal government on a mere half a trillion dollars a year (and if we assumed, which we cannot, that a radical change in incentives would not produce a radical change in behavior) then we could enact the Kanye West plan — everybody who has a baby gets $1 million — while keeping federal outlays about where they are today.

Currently, the U.S. government spends about $4.5 trillion a year; in 2019, there were just under 4 million births, so call it right about $4 trillion in birth subsidies. So, if we spent $4 trillion on baby bounties, we’d have to cut everything else back to $500 billion a year.

Impossible?

In real (inflation-adjusted) dollars, the U.S. government spent less than $500 billion a year in the early 1950s, which everybody seems to agree was a golden age for the United States, socially and economically. So for the same spending, we could have the federal government we have today or we could have the federal government of 1950 or 1951 plus $1 million for every baby born (up to 4 million babies a year). If birth rates went up sharply, I suppose we would have to adjust.

(Note: This would represent a much smaller federal government as a share of GDP in 2020, and also one that would be a smaller as a share of GDP than the federal government in 1950 and 1951. In GDP terms, the government of 2020 is about 60 percent larger than the government of 1951; in constant-dollar terms, the government of 2020 is about nine times the size of the government in 1951. The obvious shortcoming with the constant-dollar approach is that most government spending is on entitlements and transfer payments, and the population is twice as large today as it was in 1950.  As always, check my English-major math.)

I’m not saying we should do that — but we kinda-sorta could, and if you would like an indicator of how the federal government has grown since the post-war era, that is a useful one. Do you think you are getting good value for your money?

It would be a wiser course of action to reform our entitlements and our tax code, and to pay for therapy for Kanye West, but where’s the fun in that?

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