It’s funny how the mind works. An economist was on TV discussing how big the federal government had become. For some reason Edna Ferber’s 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “So Big” popped into my mind. And coincidentally, even though she had written a number of other popular books; her 1952 novel “Giant” next popped into my mind. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
Both novels aptly describe your government.
Getting back to “So Big,” this was the nickname our heroine gave to her infant son, because in response to the question “How big is baby?” the answer always was, “So-o-o-o big!” (Anyone who has had children can recall this kind of silliness with the little ones.)
So if the question is posed to you, “How big is government,” spread your arms out as wide as you can and say, “So-o-o-o big.”
The average American — myself included — can’t be faulted for not having a grasp of the size of government. Government is the largest sector of employment in the United States. On the federal side it is the only sector of the economy with a net employment gain since the recession. (234,300 and growing.) State and local governments are shrinking.
One way to understand the difficulty in comprehending government’s size is to think of New York City. It has a whopping 27,532 people per square mile. Many Americans walk one mile a day. Now square it. Hard to believe.
If Texans lived like New Yorkers — and if everything is as big in Texas as they say — 7 billion Texans would fit into Texas. Wow! Well, we live in a government-centered society which is also beyond comprehension, yet the majority accepts this.
Let’s take a look at just one benign federal department everyone likes — the Department of Agriculture. It first saw the light of day with a funding of $1,000 even though our economy was largely agrarian. It was elevated to Cabinet level by President Grover Cleveland in 1889. Agriculture has changed significantly since then with the advent of commercial farming. Today, a mere 188,000 of the 2-million-plus farms account for 63 percent of agricultural products sold.
Even with the decline of farms, its mission continues with more than 100,000 employees. The ratio of farmers to Agriculture Department employees can be as low as 1 employee for every 11.4 farmers to 1 employee for every 235 farmers if you count just the main agency that works with farmers — a more realistic number.
But you have to wonder why we need one federal employee for every 235 farmers. Well, it does have seven undersecretaries responsible for 23 services, agencies and programs and all those government employees.
They brag that the department “provides an array of subsidies for farmers and imposes extensive regulations … “ Why would they brag about “extensive”? Why not say “minimal”?
They are proud to operate “food aid programs such as the food stamp and school lunch programs, and administer many subsidy programs for rural parts of the nation.” Why can’t state and local governments do this? And why do food stamps fall within the responsibilities of this department? They gloat that “The department will spend more than $1,200 for every U.S. household.”
There are those who believe the department can be eliminated at the federal level, since state and local governments have a better grasp of local conditions. Check the job description for a “county agricultural agent” — definitely not a Washington insider who believes vegetables come from the grocery store.
One of the more striking benefits of the federal agriculture department, whose mission is to “expand economic opportunity,” is their National Appeals division, which “provides hearings for participants who receive adverse rulings” from any of their seven different operating units. Seven?
Why so many? Adverse rulings? Appeals? About what? Ah hah! We now get a better understanding of why this amiable agency would “impose extensive regulations.”
The Founders expressed concern about government overreaching, and tried to craft constraints in the Constitution. That said, even George Washington told us that “The marvel of all history is the patience which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments.”
How onerous could government have been in his day? Washington only had four cabinet positions — secretaries of War, State, Treasury and an Attorney General.
G.K. Chesterton, an early-20th-century English writer, was on the mark when he observed that “Government has become ungovernable, that is, it cannot leave off governing…it cannot see where laws should stop.”
How bad could it have been back then? He must have been prescient. This guy was a Brit who lived before the New Deal when government exploded with Alphabet Agencies. That was the beginning of the end. There was no turning back.
Ronald Reagan was a liberal Democrat between 1932 and 1962 and actively supported FDR and the New Deal. Given these credentials, he had credibility as president when he observed “No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear.
Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”
Perhaps it was unfair to single out the immortal Department of Agriculture. Their mission statement “to impose extensive regulations” on citizens is the mantra of every federal agency. The country is being governed by ever-growing executive agencies – not Congress.
During the next election cycle, Republican candidates should incorporate the following chant in their stump speech to fire up the crowd — with a prompt to stand and spread their arms wide:
“How big is Barrack Obama’s government?” The response — “So-o-o-o big!
Edna Ferber lives on.