JONATHAN COHN SEPTEMBER 23, 2010
The Republican "Pledge to America" is out, and I'll give them some credit: there are more concrete policies in there than I've seen Republicans suggest in a long while. Sure, their ideas are largely terrible, overly simplistic, or some combination of the two. But, hey, it's a start. Maybe the Republicans are finally serious about policy.
Or maybe not. Consider this graph, which purports to show government spending as a fraction of GDP under recent administrations:
At first, I looked at that graph and thought "Holy cow--President Obama is proposing to double the size of government!" But then I saw the numbers at the top and bottom of the graph. The increase in government as a share of GDP looks so large only due to the fact that the box only ranges from 17 to 24. With that scale, even a small increase looks huge. Here's what a more honest graph of the same data looks like:
As you can see, the size of government does grow slightly (assuming the Republican numbers are correct, which I have not independently verified). But it does not grow nearly as dramatically as the first graph would suggest. By distorting the scale of the graph, the pledge's authors mislead readers.
UPDATE: Ezra Klein has produced another graph, which provides yet another honest way to look at the data. My initial point was that federal spending had risen from a relatively small fraction of GDP to a slightly larger, but still fairly small, portion. Ezra's graph is useful for understanding the precise magnitude of that shift.