Red Tapeworm 2014: Guess Which Is the Largest Government on Earth?

This is Part 1 of a new series taking a walk through some sections of Ten Thousand Commandments: An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State (2014 Edition).

Federal spending gets the lion’s share of policymakers’ attention, and of course that’s no surprise.

In February 2014, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported outlays for fiscal year (FY) 2013 weighing in at $3.454 trillion, and projected spending for FY 2014 at $3.543 trillion.

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s federal budget proposal for FY 2015 seeks $3.901 trillion in discretionary, entitlement, and interest spending.

In the previous fiscal year, the president had proposed outlays of $3.778 trillion. Despite high debt and deficits, America has chosen to embrace the era of $4 trillion in annual spending.

We experienced trillion dollar deficits between 2009 and 2012 and CBO projects that deficits will exceed $1 trillion again by FY 2022.

Trillion-dollar deficits were once unimaginable; such sums signified the level of budgets themselves, not of shortfalls. Yet at no point is spending projected to balance in the coming decade.

President Obama’s 2015 budget does project deficits smaller than the recent heights, with 2014’s claimed $649 billion deficit to fall to $413 billion in 2018 before heading back into the CBO-predicted stratosphere.

To be sure, many other countries’ government outlays make up a greater share of their national output, compared with 20 percent for the U.S. government. However, in absolute terms, the U.S. government is the largest government on the planet — whether one’s metric is revenues, expenditures, deficits, or accumulated debt.

Only four other nations top $1 trillion in annual government revenues, and none but the United States collects over $2 trillion.

The scope of federal government spending and deficits is sobering. Yet the government’s reach extends well beyond Washington’s taxes, deficits, and borrowing. Federal environmental, safety and health, and economic regulations cost hundreds of billions, perhaps trillions, of dollars annually in addition to the official federal outlays that dominate policy debate.

Firms generally pass the costs of some federal taxes along to consumers. Likewise, some regulatory compliance costs that businesses face will find their way into the prices consumers pay and into wages (not) earned.

Regulatory costs are a hidden tax.

Precise regulatory costs can never be fully known because, unlike taxes, they are unbudgeted and often indirect. They are even unmeasurable as such as a cognitive phenomenon. But they may not be ignored in public policy.

Scattered but incomplete government and private data exist on scores of regulations and on the agencies that issue them, as well as estimates of regulatory costs and benefits. Compiling some of that information can make the regulatory state somewhat more comprehensible. That is one purpose of the annual Ten Thousand Commandments report.

Highlights will follow.