Thanks to proud alarmists

November 24, 1995|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- Politicians are trained from birth to view with alarm or point with pride, depending on exigencies of the election cycle. Accordingly, the yeomanry must be ever vigilant.

Luckily, never has there been a better moment to measure our politicians.

The annual edition of the Statistical Abstract of the United States, with all its racy 1,045 pages and 1,512 tables drawn from more than 200 statistical sources, offers one central service to voters: perspective. Keep it at the holiday weekend dinner table. (Government Printing Office, $37.)

Federal work force

For example, President Clinton points with pride that during his watch, the federal work force has been reduced. Republicans view with alarm that the government is so big.

It can be a tricky statistical situation. One good indicator is the Abstract's ''federal civilian employment as a percent of total U.S. employment.'' It is low. The Abstract shows the rate at 3.8 percent in 1970, and 2.6 percent in 1993.

But whom do we thank on Thanksgiving Day? The perspective offered by the Abstract shows that the trend has dropped steadily since 1970 during the Nixon presidency, and right on through the terms of Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and now Clinton. Is it possible that some things happen in America without regard to who is president?

As we offer thanks and try to follow the twists of the budget debate, whom should we thank for economic growth?

Mr. Clinton says thank Clinton.

Republicans say thank Republicans.

The Abstract reports that the economy was in recession in 1991 (-.06 percent) but grew (+2.3 percent) in 1992, the last full year of the Bush presidency.

Who gets 1993? The economy grew (+3.1 percent), but did it really spurt at 12:01 p.m. on January 20, 1993, when Mr. Clinton became president? There is economic momentum to consider.

The growth rate for 1994 was 4.1 percent. Who owns that year?

Estimates for 1995 show continued non-inflationary growth, but at a slower rate. Who gets thanked or blamed for that: President Clinton or the new Republican Congress?

A life of its own?

Is it possible that the economy has a life of its own? Is it possible that it proceeds cyclically on a generally ascendant track, and that it is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S. government or of the president?

Might it be that there are no little GS-15 gnomes in the White House basement who come in late at night and turn the crank on a very special machine called a Job Creator?

Then there is the matter of the deficit.

President Clinton points with pride when he tells us that he cut it by half a trillion dollars. Thanks. And true, if you do the figuring by the current-services budget, which counts slower increases as cuts.

But Mr. Clinton has been in office for two full fiscal years, 1994 and 1995, and Republicans view with alarm that the deficits ran about $200 billion each year, by the latest estimates available as the Abstract went to press.

Thank whom, for what, and why? (Actually, later estimates show that 1995 will come in at a somewhat lower level.)

The president and the Democrats view with alarm the proposed Republican budget. They say that the new GOP levels of spending will savage the poor and the elderly.

Republicans say it's only a decrease in the rate of increase, and point with pride that it will end deficits in seven years.

Credit and blame

I vote with the Republicans on this one. The Abstract shows that total government social-welfare expenditures climbed from 47 percent of all government outlays in 1970 to 62 percent in 1992.

Who gets the credit or blame for that? Mostly Republican presidents, or mostly Democratic Congresses?

In any event, it won't be a disaster to moderately cut the rate of increase.

Moreover, from 1985 to 1993 the number of Americans traveling overseas climbed from 13 million to 19 million.

The number of recreational boats owned by Americans climbed from 14 million to 17 million.

Annual home computer sales jumped from 2 million units to 4.9 million units, while sales of cellular phones soared from 115,000 to 1.3 million.

There is a Thanksgiving message here. As we go through the budget baloney, the election exaggeration and the holiday hoopla we will do well to remember that there is a life in America that has nothing to do with political parties or government.

Amen. From that perspective, we have plenty to be thankful for.

You could look it up.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''

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