In Perspective, How Big is the U.S. Government?

This is another post in which I’m trying to separate fact from rhetoric for my own sake, and I thought I’d share my results. There are a lot of politicians making promises to shrink “Big Government” in the U.S. What I wanted to know was simply how big has that government actually become.

Let me say right off that there are LOTS of ways to consider whether the federal government is “BIG” or not — budget-wise, intrusiveness into local/regional issues, etc. As a start I’m just looking at how many employees the federal government actually has. There are real problems with this — for example, contractors are not, I believe, counted as employees and I can’t say how the number of contractors has changed over the years. Likewise, this gives no glimpse into private-sector workers whose livelihoods are completely dependent on federal work (defense industry, for example).  This is just another glimpse that might give me a bit of insight.

As in my previous posts, I’ve analyzed the data by adjusting for population (i.e.: per capita results). Why? If the population has doubled, but the government is the same size, then are government has HALF as many employees per citizen as it did previously. That indicates a much leaner government. On the other hand, if population doubles but government employment quadruples, then we have TWICE AS MANY employees per citizen as we did previously.  Population adjustments are absolutely necessary if you want to make sense of historical trends.

A second caveat:  this is another “first order” approximation.  I’m not looking to publish this for economic modelling purposes, so I’m not worried about being off a few percent here or there due to interpolations I made on census data, for example. I just wanted to make a quick-and-dirty reality check to see how big a problem government growth actually is. Employment data were drawn from this table:

Once again, the data and my expectations were pretty darn different!  Here’s total U.S. Federal Employment (Civilian + Military) per capita from 1962 through 2010:

Much to my surprise, the size of the federal government in terms of employees per capita has been on a general downtrend since the end of the 60’s. In fact, it’s now under half the it’s peak size for this time period. I absolutely did not expect that.  Digging through the data reveals that we’ve seen big drops in civilian employees per capita and still bigger drops in uniformed military per capita. The drops in military employment as the cold war wound down and we refocused on stand-off engagements (cruise missiles, smart bombs, drones) make sense, but I didn’t think that through beforehand. What really surprised me, though, is that the number of civilian employees (what we can consider to be the bureaucracy) has actually shrunk per capita.  I really did think government was much bigger in terms of employees now than it was in the 60’s or 70’s.

Well… now I know better!  Just for kicks here is one more graph stacking up all federal employees (executive branch employees, legislative/judicial employees and military):

So what does all of this say about whether or not our federal government is too big?  Not a thing.  It does not tell us what the best size would be for the most successful government for our society.  It only says that our federal government has been shrinking since the 60’s in both the civilian and military side of things.  We may or may not have a “BIG” government, but it *is* a much smaller government than it used to be.  The only other thing that I notice is the lack of any convincing claim that one party or the other has a significantly different impact on size of government from their rival.  The downward trend is fairly uniform.


On the Nature of Economic Growth

My last post was a basic investigation into a simple question:  would “tax the rich” fix our deficit and or debt?  It generated a lively thread over on my Facebook page, but a lot of that discussion went well beyond the scope of my simple question.  All that debate got me thinking:  in a more-or-less free market economy like our own, can you discern the impact of tax rates or government spending or politics or anything else in the growth of our economy?

To answer that question I went dredging the web for data.  I started by finding a table of U.S. GDP from the end of 1929 through the present in inflation-adjusted (real) dollars.  If you don’t use real dollars then “growth” can actually be simple inflation, so that’s a necessary adjustment.  I charted it using a Google spreadsheet and got this:

We see a basic exponential curve with some variation along the way and a blip at the end that represents the current financial crisis.  Hmmm… exponential…  That made me wonder how much of our growth is due to nothing more than having MORE PEOPLE and therefore MORE WORKERS.  To answer that question I grabbed census data from 1920 to 2010, ran a linear interpolation for years in-between, and used those numbers to create the following graph of Real-Dollar GDP per Capita:

Wow.  That’s *almost* linear, but perhaps it could be the early portions of an exponential growth curve.  Regardless of that, however, what can we conclude?

Tax rates varied wildly over the range, but the trend is almost linear.

Government policies varied greatly, but the trend is almost linear.

Wars and recessions came and went, BUT THE TREND IS ALMOST LINEAR.

I can’t draw conclusions from this about what are really the biggest drivers of economic growth (my first guess is progress via science and technology) but I *can* see that it seems to vary negligibly based on who is in power, what the tax rate for the rich is, or most of the other political positions people tend to take.  So maybe one position *IS* better than another. Fine.  I’ll give you that.  On the other hand, the impact of any particular position seems to be insignificant in the larger sweep of history in terms of economics.  It’s noise in the long-term trend.  I don’t know about you, but I find this FASCINATING and a bit unexpected!

Tax the Rich!!! (or not…)

There’s been quite a bit of talk of making the rich “pay their fair share” as a way of solving the U.S. budget problems.  I got curious as to how much good it would actually do.  I’m not interested in being super-duper precise here — just enough to know whether there is any sense in it or not.  PLEASE note that this is NOT a meant to be any statement of support for either end of the political spectrum as my feeling is that both extremes are self-deceiving at best and  self-serving at worst.

Here’s what I found:

The Current Population Survey from the Census Bureau reveals that there are 2.484 million households (out of 118 million) in the U.S. that make more than $250,000 per year.  Those households have an average income of $398,194 per year. With current tax brackets, their upper income is taxed at between 33% and 35% That’s on everything ABOVE $250K/yr of taxable income, so $148,194 per household.  At 33% that would bring in about $121 billion per year.

What if we raised it to 50%?  That would give the U.S. government about $63 billion more per year.  What if we TOOK IT ALL — ALL THEIR INCOME OVER $250K PER YEAR??? The U.S. government would get a little less than $250 billion a year more (in year one — after that NO ONE would be interested in making over $250K a year anyway, so the take would go to $0).

Through July of this year the federal deficit — the amount we’ve overspent so far just this year — was $974 billion.

So…  if we took away all income over $250,000 from the wealthiest 2.5 million households in the U.S.,  we would only be able to cover about a QUARTER of our current overspending.  So no matter how much we tax the rich, it barely even puts a dent in the problem.

That means EVERYONE is going to pay much, much more in taxes or we’re going to see HUGE reductions in spending. The former means much slower economic growth and reduced prosperity.  The latter means cutting Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and the military (along with interest on the debt they make up ⅔ of the budget, so you can’t balance the budget without cuts there).  We have to pick our poison… there is no such thing as a free lunch.

A Review of Atlas Shrugged

I finished Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, so I want to share my thoughts on it, especially since it brings out such strong emotions in many people.

1 – It’s long and long-winded.  Rand never fails to use four pages where one could do the job better.

2 – It’s preachy.  One of the main characters gives a THREE HOUR speech.  Seriously, the chapter claims the speech took three hours.

3 – The plot is OK.  It has its moments, but the long diatribes detract from it.  Also, it reminds me of “Mission Impossible 2” where there seemed to be a large number of silly “glamour shots” focusing on Tom Cruise’s hair.  Rand does that IN PRINT.  Editing out 50% of the book would make for a much better story while retaining all the meaning.

4 – It reminds me Robert Heinlein’s more Libertarian writings — just swap “spaceship” for “train” throughout the book.

So that’s about it for the book itself.  Of course, what makes the book so controversial is that it is a vehicle for exploring Rand’s philosophical framework, Objectivism.

Objectivism rejects religion, insists that rational thought is what makes us human, believes that individuals should live a life of rational self-interest, and that altruism is wrong (or a form of self-delusion).  You could very loosely describe it as “Libertarianism for Atheists” although real differences do exist between the two.

Interestingly, the human that honestly embraces Objectivism is also meticulously honorable and fair.  This stems from the relationship between rational thinkers and self-esteem:  you cannot rationally take pride in wealth, awards or accolades which are undeserved and unearned, so you must treat every dealing with others with a sense of utmost fairness.  This is in stark contrast to what I had heard spoken of Rand’s philosophy — that it justifies the behavior of a scoundrel.  I can see how people could believe that, but Atlas Shrugged definitely does not support that view.

On the subject of altruism, it is my interpretation that Rand recognized no such thing.  I believe she would suggest that a person is always getting something in return:  happiness, a sense of nobility, superiority, gratitude or satisfying a personal need to shape the future to be more the world they desire.  Wikipedia discusses this debate in its article on altruism as well. Altruism, I think, is not represented so much as something to be avoided, but something an honest person would recognize as self-delusion.  Again, a bit different than I usually see her views as presented by critics.

So what do I think of Rand’s philosophy (based on my reading of Atlas Shrugged — I have not studied her other books or essays on the subject)?

I think that for people who can live Objectivism honestly, it could make them better individuals — individuals who tend to pull the world forward towards a brighter future in the process.  For people that do not find solace or hope in religion, it seems to be a way for those that embrace it to live happier lives as well — productive, energetic, purposeful and accepting joy at the accomplishments that brings.  It’s not an easy way of life for anyone, but I think it has good value for individuals that can deal with its high demands for open self-examination and constant unflinching use of reason.  It doesn’t offer easy answers or simple choices, and doesn’t serve as a pre-determined rulebook for every situation an adherent would encounter.  I think that the number of people that are capable of successfully applying this philosophical framework to their lives is very small.

Of course, many people wish to judge a philosophy as a social system, not as a choice for an individual.  What world would we live in if everyone adopted Objectivism?  That’s a fantasy question as it demands a world in which everyone be the kind of person that would live accordingly.  To answer the question presupposes a world completely different than the one in which we live — and that doesn’t answer the original question at all.  That’s a problem with most philosophies as well as social systems — they paint a picture of Utopia that is based on everyone choosing to embrace the same system.


One-sentence summary of Atlas Shrugged:
It’s worth reading for its historical relevance and as an introduction to Objectivism even though it is long-winded and limps along at times as a work of fiction.

Two-sentence summary of Objectivism:
Potentially quite valuable to a very small number of individuals, but highly unlikely to be successfully applied by most people.  It is neither the salvation nor abomination that some make it out to be.

Headlight Restoration

It’s clear that my Boxster had a headlight replaced before I bought it. Unfortunately, that’s because the one that wasn’t replaced has become cloudy. I considered replacing the cloudy one, but then found out that my car has the premium light package and the xenon headlights are over $1200 each.

OK… not going to be doing that. Instead, I spent about 1% of that on a lens restoration kit from 3M. It’s a series of sanding disks and polish that you attach to an electric drill to remove the outer layer of the lens and then polish it clear again. I was a bit nervous about taking sandpaper to a $1200 part, but hey… you only learn by giving yourself permission to make mistakes. Fortunately, the process turned out to be really easy. 3M’s kit is very complete and has excellent instructions — you can even go online to see a how-to video.

Here’s the before and after:

And after…

I may do a second polishing on it since I think I could still improve it slightly, but I’m not sure. I can still see a slight difference between the two headlights, but it’s now very subtle instead of “one clear – one cloudy”. For under $20, I’d highly recommend 3M’s kits to anyone that wants to fits cloudy headlights.

Year of the Maker: Week Eleven in Review – Thoughts on Rapid Prototyping

I bought a great car a few months ago, but it is *not* a new car. It’s a 2005 Porsche Boxster S and is a profound pleasure to drive. I’d much rather buy a great used car than a new car that I wouldn’t love. One down side to buying a car from the middle of the previous decade, though, is that it lacks some of the more modern electronics. In my case, I have to toss my iPhone in the passenger seat and connect it to the radio via an FM transmitter (there’s no aux input jack). The phone slides around all over the place in the passenger seat becuase there’s no good place to attach a holder on the dash. Honestly, though, I could go without music entirely if I had to because the driving experience is superlative.

Given a choice, though, I won’t go without my music, and as a maker I don’t have to!  Since this a wonderful car, I want an iPhone mount that won’t take away from the car’s appearance.  Fortunately, there is a conveniently-placed ashtray (and I don’t smoke!).  Unfortunately, it’s too small to simply drop my phone into it (and I couldn’t press skip/pause/replay if it did fit).  However, that ashtray can serve as perfect location for an iPhone mount if such a thing existed.

That’s where rapid prototyping comes in to play along with 3D-print-on-demand that’s available to me as a builder of a 3D printer.  First I made a few quick measurements of the ashtray and the phone (in its case).  I then did rough designs for the mount and the bracket.  Save and print and I have “rough sketch” real objects.  No surprise to me that they wouldn’t fit/work — I didn’t expect the sketches to be the final product.  What this rapid “idea to model to object” process does is let me quickly and easily determine what changes I need to make.  It didn’t have to be perfect from the start.  In this case, the grip for the phone was too thin, the ashtray turned out to be smaller on the bottom than the top and the slot for the grip was too shallow.  I ran through a few more iterations before getting it exactly as I wanted.  You can see the progressive changes here:

Rapid prototyping (model –> build –> repeat) is a fantastic real-world equivalent to the agile programming methodology.  It’s also a lot more fun than having to get everything right on the first go.  Once I was satisfied I had exactly what I wanted, I changed out the filament feeding into my printer from white to sky blue to make it prettier.  The final product is two pieces that come apart so that I can store the grip in the center console and close the ashtray when I’m not using it — this keeps the original design of the car’s interior intact.  Here’s the final version:

I may purchase a spool of grey plastic in the future and reprint it so that it matches the grey interior.  In the meantime, though, I now have a custom-made, rapidly-prototyped secure mount for my iPhone that’s a perfect fit for the ashtray in a 2005 Boxster!

Year of the Maker: Week Ten in Review

Yeah, yeah… I’m late posting again. You get a full refund of all the money I made off your viewing of my blog up to today (3/16/12).  🙂

The biggest progress I made was on linear bearings:

My old version and my new…

The longer version on the right is the new one. Being longer, it has much less play than the shorter, old version. However, it also produces LESS friction. What’s the secret sauce? The “teeth” you can see that touch the rod taper away along the inside of the bearing so that the only touch near the ends where they are needed. Negligible play, low friction: best of both worlds!

The other cool aspect of this design is that you cannot make these parts via a mold — they require a 3D printer to create if you want to make them out of a single piece. Traditional manufacturing processes would find this design to be problematic to say the least.

I’m hoping to have Week Eleven up in a timely fashion — with a nice bit of SketchUp + 3D printing in the works!

Year of the Maker: Week Nine in Review

Yep… didn’t get last week’s update up. Better late than never! Not much to say about it, though. I worked on creating linear bearings (picture below) and found that I need to add a LOT more infill for that design to work properly. In the process I decided to upgrade my 3D printer’s software — which in turn requires firmware upgrades which in turn proved difficult. Hopefully I’ll have the new firmware/software up-to-date this weekend.

Year of the Maker: Week Eight in Review

Yay!  This week was productive! More experiments with Sketchup and my 3D printer:  printable universal joints (click that link if you don’t know what a Universal Joint is — the animation will make it clear).  There are a LOT of ways to create a universal joint, but this is my own design (version 0.1) working under the constraint that it had to be printable (and that’s a big constraint that I won’t go into here).   Here is the result:

I did this for a couple of reasons.  First, I wanted the challenge of making this beast with NO screws, bolts or nuts.  It’s strictly snap-together and can sustain very large forces acting on it (which means it was really, really hard to put together!).  Also, u-joints + wire + servos + arduinos = animatronics!  This will end up in either a cool robot or costume.  It can be used in robotic tentacle-type grips or robotic tails.

For those of you that might not know what 3D printing is all about, here’s a 30 second video of the my “Kevbot 3000” printer in action.  The universal joint took over two hours to print in total, so this really is just a tiny sample:

3D printers like mine melt a plastic filament (a whole lot like what you feed into a weed-eater) and extrude it layer by layer into whatever shape you want.  We really are living in the future for anyone that wants to expend the time and energy to get there!

Year of the Maker: Week Seven in Review

This week I’ve brought my “Kevbot” 3D printer back online.  It’s a modified Makerbot Cupcake with a custom z-stage, Acme rods and no end-stops (dangerously:  that’s how I roll!).

I did this:

That’s a test print I did to make linear bearings.  I’m trying to get an idea of how I need to adjust idealized (i.e.: computer model) bearings so that real-world prints create precise-fitting bearings.  Each hole in the test bearing is 0.1 mm in radius larger than the next smaller.  That led me to design and build a real bearing to which I can attach a 3D printer Z-stage.  Here’s the result:

Smooth linear motion.  It’s not perfect, yet, but it’s a few cents worth of plastic versus ten or twelve dollars for a similar commercially-available bearing.  A couple more tweaks and I’ll be on my way!

Also, I dialed in some changes to the temperature of the heated build platform that gives me much more reliable builds, consistent shrinkage, and nice separation from the “raft”.  It’s been a productive week!